secretsEarlier this month, The New York Times ran another column in its Workalogist series that asked the following question:

Are conversations with a human resources department confidential? I’m contemplating retirement in about three years and would like to gather benefit information from human resources now — but I do not want my supervisor to know. Once I decide, I would like to give three weeks’ notice.

In responding, the Workalogist quotes one SHRM professional as saying that, “An H.R. professional should maintain the employee’s confidentiality to the extent possible.”  But note the caveat: HR is at the “razor’s edge of balancing confidentiality with the overall needs of the business.”  He notes that many workers assume some confidentiality even where it doesn’t exist:

Workers often assume there’s some sort of H.R. parallel to the confidentiality they’d expect from a doctor or a lawyer. That’s not the case, says Debi F. Debiak, a lawyer and labor and employment consultant in Montclair, N.J. Barring circumstances involving, for instance, a medical condition, “there is no legal obligation to maintain confidentiality” about a retirement discussion, she says.

Suzanne Lucas, the Evil HR Lady (her name, not mine), has often touched on this subject in her blog and columns.  She was asked whether it was “illegal” or immoral for the HR representative to forward to the company’s COO an employee’s angry e-mail:

Well, it’s not illegal (she says in her non-lawyer, non legal advice way). HR people are not required to keep a confidence as a doctor, priest or lawyer is. In fact, part of our job is to blab. Which means that I’m also going to suggest that it wasn’t necessarily immoral either.

Indeed, there may be times when such a referral is necessary to protect the company. Complaints of sexual harassment often need to be investigated, or reviewed.  In those instances, employers may not be able to honor a request to keep things “confidential”.

In short, those in human resources should realize that they shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.  Protecting the company and investigating harassment complaints are two common areas when HR should be speaking up — instead of keeping silent.