Want to know what confidentiality really means in HR? Human Resources practitioners online receive frequent emails from employees that say, "I had a problem, so I went to HR. I told HR, and they told my boss, and now my boss is mad at me. Isn't HR required to keep everything confidential?“
When HR Must Take Action
It's easy to see how people can think that HR is not confidential. HR deals with a lot of information that should be confidential. For instance, they handle health insurance (although, they aren't subject to HIPAA regulations except in cases where companies are self-insured), they handle salaries, and they handle employee discipline.
An employer would fire any HR person who shared information about any of these topics without authorization and a good reason. But what about other areas that an employee might bring to HR?
Some things HR staff have to act on, and that means they can't keep your information confidential. Shocked? Don't be. Well, here are some of the issues that HR must act on.
Sexual Harassment Claims
If you file a complaint saying that your boss, coworker, or even a vendor sexually harassed you, the HR department has to act. Legally, if they ignore your claim, they make the company liable for the actions of the harasser. This is true even if you say, "I don't want you to do anything, I just want you to be aware." Legally, HR must act or it could be considered nonfeasance.
How many people will become involved depends on the type of claim the employee made. If for instance, your claim is that Jim watches porn on his computer and it makes you feel uncomfortable, then the HR person can easily deal with the problem. He or she can pick up the phone, call the IT department, and ask them to look at Jim's computer history. In a couple of minutes, HR can bust Jim, and no one will even have to know that you complained in the first place.
But what if your complaint is that Jim made inappropriate advances to you? HR has to investigate that, and that will involve speaking with people. They will speak to Jim. They will speak with other potential witnesses, and after they've gathered the information, they'll make a decision, usually in conjunction with an employment law attorney.
Many people think that a claim is enough to cause HR to punish the person, but it's not. The company should always conduct a thorough investigation and maintain a position of neutrality while doing so. This means that they will not automatically assume that you are a victim.
This is a good thing. You want them to come to the truth. Remember, just as you can accuse someone else, someone else can accuse you. You wouldn't want HR to just believe your accuser and take action without an impartial and thorough investigation, would you?
While HR makes every effort to keep as few people as possible involved in this type of investigation, it's impossible to keep it completely quiet. Some people will have to know about it.
Other Discrimination Claims
If you claim that your boss is mean to you because of your race, HR will conduct an investigation much like with a sexual harassment claim. It's impossible to keep this completely quiet. But, what if you claim that your pay is lower because of your race?
Sometimes, the HR person can investigate a claim of race or gender pay discrimination by simply looking in their database. This may allow them to determine that no, your pay is consistent with everyone else at your level and experience, so no pay discrimination is occurring. Case closed, no one else has to know.
But, what if you just know that, even though your pay is the same as your coworkers, you're not getting the assignments that will prepare you for promotion? Then, you'll have to make your case, and then HR will conduct an investigation—and again, people, including your manager, will know about it.
Here is where the situation can become sketchy. You may think that your HR person is just a sounding board, but then they go straight to your manager and report what you said. What just happened? First of all, your HR person should make it very clear to you what they will and will not share outside of your closed-door meeting.
You should also make clear what your expectations are. For instance, say, “I'd like some tips on how to get along with my boss better, but I wouldn't like you to speak with him. Is this okay?” They should say yes or no, and then you can proceed, but with the full understanding that your HR manager has agreed not to go to your boss to report.
Keep in mind, if one of the issues you struggle with them has to do with your manager breaking the law (sexual harassment, stealing, securities fraud), the HR person has to act. Even if they told you at the beginning of the meeting that they wouldn't, the nature of your complaints can cause them to need to intervene.
If your complaint is that your coworker is always late and never gets punished, just what do you want the HR person to do about it? Do you want them to speak to your manager? Speak with your coworker? Just listen to your venting? Decide what outcome you want before you go in.
Remember, an HR person is not the same as your union rep. They're there to help the company. Sure, the best way to help the company is to ensure that employees are treated well, but that sometimes means going to a manager with your complaint, or ignoring your complaint.
Frankly, it's not your problem that your coworker is coming in late unless it impacts your workload. Your HR manager may remind you of that. If you complain too much about things that are not your problem, you may motivate your HR manager to go to your boss to let your boss know that you're a problem employee. Trust that this is not a reputation you want to attain.
Your HR manager will keep your salary from your coworkers (unless you work in an office where salaries are public), should keep your medical problems confidential, and should do their best to keep delicate situations as close as possible—with only those who need to know—knowing.
But, you should not count on your HR manager to act like your priest or your lawyer. They will protect the business. They are not really required to keep anything other than medical information quiet (if your company is subject to HIPAA).
Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.