Ask Addi P.: Should I Keep Employee Secrets?

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Addi P

Dear Addi P.,

I'm dealing with a situation involving confidentiality in the workplace. An employee came to me to talk about something and asked me to keep it confidential. I agreed. But the nature of what she told me will require that I get other people involved. I do not want to betray her trust, but I also need to make sure the situation is properly addressed. How should I handle it?

— Secrets in Savannah

Dear Secrets,

First, good for you for not telling me the details of the situation and for being concerned about both your organization and the employee. Your confidentiality game is strong.

Confidentiality in the Workplace

HR's default position on conversations with employees should always be that they are confidential as much as possible, even if the employee does not ask you to keep the information confidential. Establishing trust is important to HR's effectiveness in both getting things done and in being able to effectively resolve problems when they arise. When employees come to HR, they are often under stress and may be uncomfortable about sharing what is going on. Assuring the person that you will listen and will keep their information confidential to whatever extent you can is an important part of being able to understand what is happening and how to help them.

Involving Others

Sometimes, the problem requires further action and getting other people involved such as managers, leaders or attorneys. For example, whenever there is even a hint of discrimination, sexual harassment or whistle-blowing, you will need to investigate further and consult your lawyers. Other times, you may need guidance from senior leadership or want attorneys involved to obtained attorney-client privileged advice about the situation. In these cases, the information cannot stay just between you and the employee.

Let the employee know that you need to take the issue further and you can't keep the information completely secret. Outline the process you will go through, who will know and be involved, and what levels of confidentiality those people will observe. Then, give a realistic timeline for resolving it.

Involving the Legal Department

If there's a formal investigation and attorneys are involved, much of the investigation processes and discussion will be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Often, this means that many details of the investigation cannot be shared even with the employee who raised the concern. This is to allow the organization to get to the bottom of the problem.

But as HR moves through the investigation, it is also important to remember the employee is stressed and worried about what will happen. They may be distracted at work and have performance issues. Often, they already do, which is part of why they ended up in your office to begin with. So be kind. Compassion, understanding, listening and showing that you care is one of the most effective ways you can reduce risk and maybe even resolve the issue before it becomes a bigger problem.

Handle With Care

With health or family leave issues, you may have to let a manager know that an employee needs an extended leave of absence. In other situations you may want advice on how to handle the problem from your colleagues or supervisor. Again, make sure you let the employee know what you plan to say and whom you plan to talk to. As much as possible, get their approval for what you will say.

For example, if an employee is going to be gone for 28 days to check into a drug and alcohol program, this is sensitive and personal information that can have negative assumptions and judgments associated with it. Only share the minimum information needed and only with those who have a legitimate need to know. Instead of telling the employee's manager that the employee is going to rehab, you can explain that it's a health issue. If more information is required because of performance issues or other circumstances, then check with your employment lawyers for the best approach.

Confidentiality in the workplace can be tricky. The key to maintaining trust is matching expectations with reality. Be clear about what you are doing and why, and assure the employee every step of the way that you care about them and will keep the details of their situation as confidential as possible.

Take care,

Addi P.

Addi P is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and not legal, accounting or tax advice. The information and services ADP provides should not be deemed a substitute for the advice of a professional who can better address your specific concern and situation. Any information provided here is by nature subject to revision and may not be the most current information available on the subject matter discussed.

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