what to do when an employee gives you info in confidence

A reader writes:

I’ve had an employee come to me to tell me about some problematic behavior he witnessed from another employee. It’s serious enough that not addressing it isn’t an option, but the employee who told me about it asked me not to reveal that the information came from him. However, no one else saw it happen. What’s the best approach to address this without violating his confidentiality?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Gandalf the Nude

    Alison, in the second to last paragraph, you say “companies have an option to investigate harassment reports, even if the reporter asks them not to.”

    Should “option” not be “obligation”? Or am I misunderstanding something?

  2. Juli G.

    Great advice Allison! This topic has come up for me several times recently and it is a hard balance to strike. Managers have an obligation to protect employees and the company when harmful behavior is revealed but sometimes, the wrong employees are being protected.

      1. ZenCat

        Good point on the needing to find truth. I had always thought only HR could protect employees and talking to a manager woudnt impose an obligation.

  3. Katie the Fed

    Right on, Alison.

    I’m legally required to report if someone tells me about sexual harrassment or discrimination. So when someone wants to tell me something in confidence, I tell them up front that I may have to report anything they tell me.

    1. cuppa

      +1 me too. Fortunately, that is covered in harassment training for all employees where I am.

    2. ZenCat

      How have your employees reacted to this? Retaliation and discomfort scared me when I talked to my manager about something. If she had said that up front I don’t know if I’d have said anything I knew was likely an an obligation. I had no clue if my manager held the same ideas on my disability or protected class.

  4. Jady

    Completely agree and glad to see that keeping the confidence is a high priority.

    I’ve had the opposite happen to me, where I specifically asked to be kept private yet ended up suddenly and unexpectedly having to deal with an incredibly awkward and unpleasant situation. It definitely has made me second (and third) guess myself with ever bringing up issues to a boss now.

    1. NickelandDime

      I had the same issue happen to me. It was absolutely unnecessary to bring my name up at all, as in it wasn’t sexual harassment, someone’s life in danger, etc. I will never report anything unless I absolutely have no choice. Sorry, but I was burned badly and I won’t put myself in that position again.

    2. Amy

      Why tell the boss at all if you don’t want any action to be taken? The boss may be friendly, but the boss’s loyalty is to the organization, not to you. If you just want to vent to someone, vent to a friend.

      1. NickelandDime

        Sometimes it’s something that a manager may need to know, but it may cause problems if the people involved know where the information came from. It is not venting. And as Allison stated, you can take action without letting anyone know where the tip came from.

  5. Retail Lifer

    Please do everything you can to keep the employee’s name out of this. I work for a location in a company where there is a long-standing tradition of unethical, possibly illegal, and otherwise disturbing behavior by upper management. We banded together, reported it to HR, HR didn’t bother to keep it confidential, and several of the reporters have since been let go due to “other, completely unrelated” reasons. My butt is also on the line, but I haven’t messed up so they have nothing on me. I’ll never have the confidence to report anything again to HR, so I’ll find an anonynous way to report issues in the future.

    1. BravoZulu

      Rule #1 HR are not your friends in any situation,. They are there to protect the company. Best thing to do is grin and bear it while finding another place of employment.

  6. Green

    At companies where I’ve worked (where non-retaliation policies have existed), HR/managers/whoever (1) reminds the reporter about the non-retaliation policy and (2) includes a pretty detailed reminder about the non-retaliation policy when discussing the matter with the person whose behavior is the subject of the report. And if you don’t have a written policy (you should) you can say: “I want to make it clear that retaliation of any kind against anyone who is involved in a report is unacceptable.”

    1. Mike C.

      More generally, I think the manager should take that moment to ensure the employee that they will be protected from unfair retaliation – whether it’s the law, an official company policy or direct action. Quelling that fear will make the employee more comfortable in fully reporting the issue and more likely to speak up if they see something else down the road – OR – if they encounter another employee who has something to report but is waffling.

  7. Jane

    I wholeheartedly agree that keeping the reporter’s name out of things is ideal in almost all cases. I recently alerted my supervisor to a fellow employee’s erratic and threatening behavior. My supervisor didn’t keep the conversation confidential, and now I’m honestly a little afraid for my safety. (The fellow employee is bipolar, abusing drugs and has talked about getting a gun.) I understand that my supervisor was freaked out by what I told him, but I wish he hadn’t reacted so quickly.

  8. Purple Dragon

    Was there ever an update on this one ? I can’t find the original letter.

    I always want to know what happened

  9. Vicki

    It’s interesting to me that so many of the commenters are talking about possible harassment, dangerous behaviour, etc, when all the original letter said was “problematic” and “serious enough that not addressing it isn’t an option.”

    “Problematic” could be anything, e.g. the reporter believes the co-worker is stealing office supplies or failing to report something or not getting his work done or lying on his time card or punching someone else in/out…

    Regardless of whether the initial reporter’s name is “kept out of it”, it’s important to independently verify these stories. So often, if no one else saw something happen, the original person may not have seen it either. They could be confused. They could be misjudging. They could be lying.

    So much is at stake here.

  10. Heather

    Ms. Green
    Your advice on keeping an employees identity confidential, as much as possible, when intervening in any issue that has been brought to a managers attention is very reassuring for someone like myself who has never held a management position. However, it is somewhat disheartening to see the comments and replies from your followers who suggest that employee confidentiality is seen as less than important if the issue is to be resolved for the sake of the manager and/or the company. I agree whole heartedly with your statement that respecting requests for confidentiality are of the utmost importance so that employees feel confident in sharing information with management that may be extremely important.

    1. Green

      The question is how people define “as much as possible” — addressing the issue may require compromising the employee’s confidentiality (which, to be quite frank, they may expect but not be entitled to under many workplace policies).

  11. Connie-Lynne

    What would y’all do in a similar but not quite the same situation?

    A friend of mine was hired into a company where I was a manager. We were chatting about work (but in a very definitely social situation) and she mentioned that another, more senior employee had come on to her a couple times during work travel. He was subtle about it when others were around, but more blatant when it was just the two of them (nothing physical, just inappropriate talk).

    When she told me, I reminded her that as a manager I was required to report such behavior, but she asked me not to as it was very much he-said she-said and she didn’t want to deal with the social fallout. I encouraged her to let me do so, because I didn’t want the harasser to get away with bugging a less-resilient woman than my friend, and because it was the right thing to do, but she really didn’t want to be pulled in. In the end, I asked my boss (who the harasser also rolled up to) if there had been reports of the harasser being problematic toward women, and that I had received such a report but didn’t want to name the person because the person didn’t want the social fallout. He didn’t press me for a name.

    I feel like since I wasn’t her manager, she told me socially (and we had had a previous totally-not-work friendship before becoming coworkers), and because I told my manager that I did the ethical thing (although I’m less sure of the legality of what I did). What would others have done?

    1. Jady

      I would have followed your actions too personally. In addition, I would check in with her and remind her that you’re available should she change her mind at any time, or should things escalate further. And depending on your relationship, remind her that she can also stand up for herself and just tell the guy to back-off or else he will get reported – that you will back her up to prevent backlash.

      Outside of that, I would have kept a closer eye on the harasser and report behavior that YOU see. Once you’ve observed it yourself, it is no longer he-said she-said. And in general, try to keep them separated if it is within your power – not letting them travel together and such.

      Unless the situation escalates to something unreasonable, I feel like respecting the victim’s privacy requests takes priority. But you should be on high alert.

      1. Connie-Lynne

        Thanks, I did check in with her a couple times after that. Unfortunately I didn’t work with the harasser very often, but I certainly kept my eyes open.

    2. Green

      “Informal reports” are how these situations are reported many times, which is why many businesses have sexual harassment mandatory reporting for managers. They are still “reports” for legal purposes. So if there are future issues with him, your company could be liable. Ultimately it sounds as though you reported (which you should have) and they chose not to press for a name. So good for reporting (assuming that was the proper channel), trying to keep confidentiality, and then letting them to determine whether they needed the person’s name.

  12. Jamie

    In thinking about this I can’t imagine anyone telling me anything major that I’d have to act on and expecting me to do nothing. Even a work buddy.

    Because why tell me? So I know it too? All that does is drag my hiney into the mess if the behavior escalates and then I’m being interviewed about why I knew and did nothing.

    That would be my question, honestly – if you don’t want me to address it why did you hand me this moral dilemma?

    I have never had a situation come up where I had to use someone’s name against their wishes. Every time I have had someone report something to me and wish to stay anonymous it was always easy to “discover” the evidence myself.

    I did have a time, early in my career, where I had to report someone for something and the boss immediately panicked trying to brainstorm how to address it while leaving out my name as there’s no way it could have come from anyone else. I told them I wouldn’t have said anything if I wasn’t prepared to discuss it and we should have a meeting with the horrible gentleman together. They were so relieved and surprised -so I guess the “make this stop, but don’t tell anyone you heard it from me” thing is more common than not.

    For me though it was simple: I wouldn’t have said anything if A) it wasn’t a BFD and B) I wasn’t willing to have my name attached to my statements.

    1. Marzipan

      I honestly think that in these situations people are often hoping you secretly have magical powers and can fix the problem with a wave of your wand. In my job it’s the service users who do this more so than my team, but we frequently have to point out that we can’t possibly act upon the thing they’re complaining about (the thing in our case being the behaviour of some other service user) without, well, acting upon it.

      We do find that the things Alison suggested – reassuring them we’ll support them and not tolerate any repercussions to them, and seeing whether we can observe the problem behaviour ourselves to keep the complainant out of it – to be really helpful. Also, giving a clear picture (as far as possible) of what will happen next seems to really help. But it’s amazing how long otherwise intelligent people take to grasp the idea that if I were able to swoop in and disappear the person upsetting them without ever hearing their side of the story, or verifying the evidence, or giving that person the chance to remedy the problem, then the complainants would be in a situation where I could do the exact same thing to them one day… which would make it a horrible solution.

      1. fposte

        I was thinking the same thing as your first paragraph–that this is about vague expectations, not misplaced expectations. There’s a long, deeply ingrained narrative of “If there’s a problem, tell,” but it doesn’t go into a lot of analysis of what happens then; I think people subconsciously feel that the mere act of telling would repair a situation, just like a “no” answer to “is it legal?” would stop people in their tracks and solve everything.

        That’s why I really like Alison’s note about explaining the limitations up front, before the conversation even begins.

      2. A Dispatcher

        “But it’s amazing how long otherwise intelligent people take to grasp the idea that if I were able to swoop in and disappear the person upsetting them without ever hearing their side of the story, or verifying the evidence, or giving that person the chance to remedy the problem, then the complainants would be in a situation where I could do the exact same thing to them one day… which would make it a horrible solution.”

        This always amazes me as well. We get so many callers who want us to go out and arrest others for things based simply on accusations they make via a phone call, without ever wanting to meet with police or make a report. I’d say only about half get it when I try to explain that if I were to arrest your ex based on a simple phone call you’re making to me stating he’s making harassing phone calls to you, what is to stop him from doing the same exact thing to you.

    2. ZenCat

      This is interesting – perhaps I use my manager wrong (I am a pretty direct person) and I want to know where I stood with them. I hadn’t thought I’d the cluster it would bring them. Honestly I didn’t know better when I brought something up. It was more of a “I want to deal with this on my own but is it okay to come to you formally if I need to?” Ah my poor managers… I was told once that I’m a challenge to manage but worth it by a boss of 8yrs.

    3. Elizabeth West

      Jamie!!

      I agree–it’s hard to keep quiet and then later deal with “Why didn’t you say something?” No one ever really believes you if you don’t say anything for reasons.

  13. ZenCat

    I had a discrimination issue with a coworker I spoke with my manager about. Just to ask if my protected issue bothered her – I begged her not to say anything because of fear of retaliation. She told me she had to at least talk to HR and that she thought the issue was egregious. They told her to do nothing (okay with me at the time) so per my request she didn’t. I ended up telling two other managers after she left because I feared issues and needed to gauge how helpful they would be (the whole discrimination stuff with the coworker clouded my trust in the company) if something bad happened. They said nothing about reporting or to anyone but also thought the continued but an average of every 6 weeks (verbal down talk about my issue but not ME specifically) behavior was really disrespectful. I found out only after a really bad thing happened to me personally that they could have protected me. I was too scared and too ignorant to know and I wish I’d taken the risk. It’s a hard line for managers I think. I wasn’t done wrong by them necessarily. My company (quite large) had no formal training for managers.

  14. the magnalock was proving a good investment

    *sigh* this reminds me of a classic interview question: “Tell me about a situation you you wish you’d handled better?”

    Long story short, a co-worker came to me and confessed that she needed help with a problem. She swore me to secrecy. There was a guy – not an employee – who was affiliated with the work she was doing. And he kept hitting on her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Nothing physical had ever happened, but still – this guy was kinda scary.

    I told her: I don’t know what you can do without getting management involved. I mean, if she thought I had a cousin who was a hit-man, or that I’d personally break this guy’s kneecaps for her – I don’t, and I can’t. I told her “let me run it past [my mentor] – I won’t mention any names – and see if he has any ideas.”

    My mentor was quite direct: “you’ve got to report this, you don’t have a choice.” And he listed out all of the reasons why. But I got the picture. I went back to my co-worker and, with heavy heart, told her (as nicely as I could) “either you need to report it, or *I* have to report it”.

    And so she reported it. I’m not sure what happened in terms of action, but something happened, because the guy disappeared from her life (I suspect he was transferred along with a strong warning).

    Weird though it seems now, I felt bad about breaking her request for confidentiality. And while she said she understood, I think she still held it against me.

    Aside from that, I am unhappy that I thought I could take it to my mentor and we’d find a fix and we’d all live happily ever after. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to ask for ideas and opinions. But also, I needed to keep in mind that some problems simply don’t have easy, magic solutions.

  15. Ed

    My feeling is if I feel strongly enough that I must report it, I should be willing to attach my name to it. A possible exception might be if I could also give them a solid way to independently verify the offense without me. For example, in my teens I used to work with a guy at a grocery store who emptied the trash cans in the parking lot. I immediately found it odd that he would take an empty trash can out to bring back the trash instead of just throwing the full bag in a shopping cart like I did. I watched him one day and it turned out he was parking in front of the trash can and taking cases of beer to his car each trip. This was sort of a rough dude so I didn’t want to be associated with him being fired but I felt pretty good going to my manager because he would probably be easy to catch in the act (and he was).

  16. Mr. Professional

    You DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT ANYTHING with respect to “info in confidence” except for certain exempt cases like ..
    (1) Your co-worker wants you to be his reference for a new position. That too if you know the personal very well on a
    personal & professional basis where you can give him/her a glowing recommendation. If it is only on a
    professional level you can ask him/her what they need and do accordingly. My advise when a co-worker leaves
    for greener pastures always give a great professional reference to the new org and he/she will do the same for you.

    All other info in confidence like harassment of any kind refer them to HR. If that person says i spoke to that person (If that is you), just deny it. If there are “self righteous & conscientious” people in this board who might say that Mr.Professional is telling me to lie……. No i am not asking you to lie but deny it due to “incoherent & unclear communication” as i was rushing to a meeting/project deadline/bathroom or whatever :-)

    Always remember there is a fine line that you shouldn’t cross in the professional environment. Meaning keep your personal and professional lives separate. My $0.02 cents for what it is worth.

    Wishing you all the best.

  17. Mr. Professional

    An additional point i forgot to include;

    Do not get involved unless you are impacted. Again Hear no evil, See no evil, speak no evil. Mind your business, do not get involved in issues that don’t impact you and prepare for your next job with knowledge/contacts & experience from the current position.

    HR always want the odd person out to report or to be a witness and they might cite compliance/ethics and all the stuff what you see & hear during your on boarding / orientation day process. Read & view all of that, be aware of compliance, your responsibilities, professional etiquette, legal ramifications etc etc. But DO NOT get involved in issues that are not your concern. You aim should be how to stay out of trouble, do well in work and if ambitious (which i hope you are and should be) see how to climb up the corporate ladder. I wish you all the best and stay focused on your growth.

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