Confidentiality And HR - What to Know

HR is a fundamental part of most companies, but there’s a problem: a lot of people, when asked, confess that they have trust issues with HR

If you’ve been on the career ladder for a while, you might have heard the saying, ‘never trust HR’. Understandably, this leads a lot of employees to avoid speaking with HR when they have a problem and it paints HR in a very negative light

But does that old saying have any truth behind it? Can you speak to HR on a confidential basis? Let’s explore these questions now. 

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Why Don’t People Trust HR? 

If you’ve never personally heard anyone talk about not trusting HR, the idea that people caution against speaking to HR might seem strange to you. After all, HR is supposed to deal with workplace relations and employee wellbeing, right? 

The reason people say that HR departments are not to be trusted by employees is because HR is ultimately hired by and works for the company and not the individual employees. While that’s true, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t trust HR, it just means that employees should bear in mind that HR will, first and foremost, have the best interest of the company as a whole in mind.

Ultimately, a good HR department should be trustworthy, so if you have a problem you want to discuss with HR, you shouldn’t discount this idea simply because people have certain preconceptions about HR departments

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Can You Speak to HR Confidentially? 

So, here’s the big question: can you speak to HR confidentially? This is a tricky question that should be looked at from various angles. 

First of all, it’s important to bear in mind that HR does not have an obligation to keep what you say confidential. This is a misconception many people have about HR, so when HR does not keep everything confidential, employees can feel that it’s a betrayal of trust even though HR was never under any obligation to keep issues confidential in the first place.

With that being said, while there are some things you can expect HR to share with other members of your workplace after a discussion, there are also issues that you can discuss on a confidential basis. 

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What Can You Talk About Confidentially?

If you are having issues in your personal life that you don’t want other people to know about but feel you should mention to HR, you can ask for this to be kept confidential, and there should be no reason for the information to be shared any further than necessary. 

For example, if you’re going through something related to your health, or if you’re currently in the process of getting a divorce, you can ask for this information to be kept confidential. In most cases, HR will agree to do this, although they might ask if it’s okay to share this information with your supervisor, for example. 

This might feel uncomfortable, but the reason HR might ask to share with relevant people is because if your supervisor knows what’s going on, they can take it into account when assessing your work performance or dealing with you on a daily basis. If you really feel uncomfortable with the information being disclosed outside of HR, there may be a way for HR to communicate to your line manager that you’re having some personal difficulties without actually disclosing the details. 

With that being said, it’s always best to look in your employee handbook for the terms of confidentiality prior to discussing anything with HR if you’re really worried about certain information getting out. 


What Won’t HR Keep Confidential?

There are certain things you can’t expect to speak to HR about on a confidential basis because, at the end of the day, HR is legally obligated to take action on some things. 

For example, if you report to HR that you are being harassed by somebody at work, they’re going to have to share it with your manager or supervisor, and maybe even beyond that. This is specially true if the form of harassment you are reporting has legal implications, such as sexual harassment or discriminatory harassment. 

Another issue many people feel hesitant to raise with HR is any problems concerning their boss. The reason for this is that if you complain to HR about your boss and the complaint is serious (which it should be if you’re reporting it to HR in the first place) your boss will probably hear about it, and this can unfortunately result in retaliation even though there should be protections in place to stop this. So, you should think carefully about reporting your boss to HR if you’re afraid of retaliation because it likely won’t be kept confidential. 

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A Guide to Talking to HR 

If you’re planning to speak to HR about something sensitive or a matter that could result in repercussions, keep the following in mind:

  • Consider whether what you’re reporting is really a serious problem. If you’re having a minor dispute with a colleague and you report it to HR, you’ll either be told to handle it yourself, or if it does get taken further, it will likely end up causing even more problems. 

  • Find out the terms of confidentiality for your HR department beforehand. This way, you can be sure what kind of information is safe to share confidentially. 

  • If you’re reporting something serious such as gross misconduct or harassment, especially from your boss, make sure you’re prepared for the situation to escalate and perhaps speak to an attorney for advice (without telling HR or your boss) after reporting in case of retaliation. 

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Final Thoughts 

Speaking to HR can be tricky and result in trust issues if you don’t know the terms of confidentiality for your HR department

HR is not obligated to keep conversations confidential, but they may agree to do so for sensitive information regarding your personal life. For workplace issues such as harassment or gross misconduct, HR is legally obligated to escalate the situation.

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