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Confidentiality: Liability: Why is confidentiality critical to human resources?

   8/30/2012

Every organization has a need to keep certain information confidential. HR is typically entrusted with maintaining sensitive employee data and information relating to employee and management issues. As a result, confidentiality issues in any human resource department are complex and multitiered.

Human resource professionals should understand the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive employee information (e.g., Social Security numbers, performance reviews, workplace injury information, reference checks, health-related information, pay levels, etc.). Legal issues, such as identity theft, data breach notification and privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), require employers to establish processes and procedures to secure and safeguard sensitive employee data and notify employees of any breach of this confidential information.

In addition to sensitive employee information, human resources must maintain confidentiality about management or business information that is not available to nonmanagement employees. Such confidential issues could include discussions with senior management about business strategies and processes, layoffs or plant closings, proprietary data, major expansions or greenfield operation start-ups.

Confidentiality is also critical in situations such as workplace investigations or performance and disciplinary action issues. Maintaining confidentiality can be particularly challenging when certain information has to be divulged to others so that all involved parties can be heard and all pertinent information can be evaluated. A human resource professional must be able to strike a balance between preserving employee confidentiality and completing a thorough investigation that is fair to all parties.

For example, an employee may present a complaint against a co-worker but ask that no action be taken. Some human resource professionals struggle with whether to investigate the complaint further. Although it is important to consider the employee’s request, human resource staff should not promise complete confidentiality because human resources has a responsibility to both the employee and the employer to fully investigate employee complaints and to potentially involve other levels of management, especially if the concerns involve potential discrimination or harassment issues. Disclosing important information is critical in limiting employer liability and guarding against lawsuits. In these circumstances, human resources should instead inform the employee of its responsibility to fully investigate the concern, not only for the benefit of the employee, but also for others who may be experiencing the same problem. Let the employee know that the information will be discussed only with those who have a need to know and whose input is necessary to resolve the issue.

Last, human resources should develop its own process to orient new human resource team members on the importance of maintaining confidentiality of information to which they are privy or that they maintain in their respective jobs. Periodic confidentiality training reinforces the importance of handling sensitive information and data and will serve to ensure a human resource department’s credibility and operational integrity.

 

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