HR Confidential: Protecting Your Sensitive Information

7/19/2018 - By Shannon Lands, SPHR

“What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”  We are all familiar with that phrase and tend to chuckle a little when we hear it.  A similar phrase exists in the HR world that goes like this: “What Happens in HR Stays in HR.”  It’s a humorous play on words, but the meaning is serious.  For those who are tasked with HR responsibilities, confidentiality is something that always need to be “top of mind”.  A lot of information flows through an HR Department, both employee-specific information and company-specific information.  Sometimes this information will be written and documented, while some is not necessarily written but simply “known”. 

For those who work in an HR capacity, you are entrusted with maintaining sensitive information about employees and management issues.  You must also protect information under laws that govern confidentiality.  Not keeping certain information confidential can result in lawsuits, identity theft and other serious issues.  It can also undermine a HR Department’s credibility and integrity.

In HR, there are three general areas where confidentiality is a must:

  1. Employee Information
  2. Legal Issues and Sensitive Data
  3. Strategic Decisions and Actions

Employee Information

Employee information includes employee files, termination records, absence records, compensation data, performance reviews, hiring documents, etc.   Anything that is specific to an employee and doesn’t need to be known except by those who have a “legitimate need to know”, should not be shared.

Legal Issues and Sensitive Data

HR personnel are privy to a variety of legal and sensitive data.  Whether it be internal investigations concerning workplace complaints, conduct or disciplinary problems, workers compensation incidents, drug testing, employee medical issues, benefits enrollment, or FMLA documentation.  This type of information should always remain confidential and once again, only shared with those who have a “legitimate need to know”. 

In the area related to internal investigations, it’s important to note that information concerning that investigation cannot always be kept confidential.  HR needs to balance the need for confidentiality with the need to conduct a fair and complete investigation.  While an employee who files a complaint may request confidentiality, HR should neither promise or guarantee complete confidentiality because other persons may need to be involved in the investigation.    

Strategic Decisions and Actions

HR can be actively involved in senior management discussions regarding company layoffs, expansions, and restructuring.  HR can also be involved in management discussions regarding future business strategies, proprietary workforce information, and other processes that may affect the workplace.  All this information should be considered confidential.    

Those tasked with HR responsibilities are given a great deal of moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities.  Breaches in confidentiality can have a huge impact on the trust of the HR Department and possibly on the business at large.  It’s important that those delegated with HR responsibilities maintain the level of confidentiality that is needed and that they are doing it for the common good of their employees and their company. If you have any questions about matters on confidentiality, please contact me!

About the Author | Shannon P. Lands, SPHR
Shannon serves as the manager of human resources and related consulting services for Saltmarsh. She has been practicing in this field since 1994, acting as a human resources administrator and consultant for a number of small to mid-sized companies. Shannon’s experience includes all aspects of human resources administration, including policy and procedure development and legal compliance.

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