Confidentiality Can Change Lives in Business and at Work

For me, a key performance indicator (KPI) of a competent Human Resources professional is their ability to keep confidentiality.  Another symptom of my overly cautious HR training and development, perhaps; but for me, it’s a deal maker or breaker.

There are very few instances where an HR person must disclose confidential information. Harassment complaints are a good example of a mandatory compliance instance where HR professionals cannot keep typical confidentiality.  No matter how much harassment awareness training we all receive, I’m still periodically asked by an employee complainant to keep their complaint and accompanying heartache confidential, out of fear of losing their own employment and, more often than not, out of the fear that their alleged perpetrator will lose their job.  The law compels us HR professionals and managers instead to investigate and remediate all such complaints.

My first challenging experience with this harassment complaint confidentiality conundrum was receiving my first and worst harassment complaint.  In the wake of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation controversy, my organization instituted Sexual Harassment Awareness training and I was trained to deliver it at my site.  As is quite typical when a harassment training is delivered, the number of complaints naturally goes up.  Two weeks after the training, a young promotable woman employee came to me in a panic.  Her reaction was delayed because she was suddenly faced with working alone with her perpetrator (who had attacked her the last time they worked alone, and she had successfully fought him off), and she was beside herself.  Just as typically, she wanted me to know what had happened just in case it happened again, and to not tell anyone else.  I told her in no uncertain terms that by law, I could not keep her complaint confidential, and that we were required to investigate it. We stood up for her and with her organizationally during the investigation, which resulted in the exit of the perpetrator from the organization.

As I mentioned, the above example is the rare exception to that confidentiality rule for HR professionals.  Which is why I was appalled when I was called a number of years ago by a respected and talented professional who proceeded to tell me that they were just terminated by their employer because a high-level HR professional at another organization where Talented Professional had applied for a job contacted Talented Professional’s employer and told the employer that Talented Professional was looking for another job. Talented Professional had not been tendered an offer.  High-Level HR Professional was not checking references.  It back-fired, amounting to malicious gossip all around, reputational poison for both employers involved, and clearly not a reflection on Talented Professional’s character, reputation or ethics.

The story has a happy ending:  Talented Professional got a great job with a progressive organization making more money.  And the fates kindly steered Talented Professional clear of both careless employers, who clearly had a lot to learn about how confidentiality can change lives in business and at work.


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