Communicating Confidentiality

susan brecher, confidentiality, employee relations, internal investigations, scope of confidentiality

Expectations relating to confidentiality is one of the most important factors when discussing employee concerns or complaints. Many employees presume total confidentiality, making it essential to explain confidentiality’s true parameters. In Susan Brecher’s video, she provides insight into how to have these conversations in order to avoid potential policy and legal violations.

Susan W. Brecher, Esq., serves as the Director of Employee Relations and Investigations for Cornell ILR’s Human Capital Development and Executive Education programs. Her experience as an attorney in law firms and broadcasting has led her to teach graduate level human resource programs and to also advise, consult, coach and handle all aspects of employment law, employee relations, internal investigations and dispute resolution. 

Introducing Confidentiality

One of the hottest areas that HR and employee relations professionals, and even managers, need to understand is the scope of confidentiality when employees raise issues. 

Sometimes, employees want to talk about a situation, and if they go to HR, their expectation is that HR is going to address or resolve the situation. They also expect that there is going to be total confidentiality, which is just not possible.

HR professionals have to be prepared to describe to employees that there are limits on confidentiality. It’s important to recognize that employees can raise issues that require speaking to other people in the organization. This definitely happens in situations of a serious policy violation, like fraud or safety. Or it can come up in situations where discrimination or harassment policies have been violated and the organization needs to look into them.

Having Confidentiality Conversations

HR professionals know about the limited scope of confidentiality. But they don’t know what to say and how to present it in order to communicate the scope of confidentiality.

When handling situations like this, first come up with a way to phrase it. Then know it and memorize it. For example, “We handle situations with discretion and limit who needs to know.” 

If you memorize this, repeat it over and over again, you will not spend time worrying about what to say, but instead you will be able to remain attentive to what the employee says to you.

But what happens when the employee says, “What do you mean you’re going to handle it ‘with discretion’?” Step back and instead of directly saying, “There are limits on confidentiality,” probe.

Ask, “Why are you concerned?” Many employees are going to say they don’t want their manager to know. Then, ask, “Why?” Most employees are going to say they think their manager is going to retaliate.

If you’re prepared to say, “We don’t tolerate retaliation and you can come to me if you feel there are adverse actions,” you gain the opportunity to respond directly to the employee’s specific concern. 

Now suppose an employee says, “I’m not going to talk to you. I’m not going to tell you anything.” In investigations, you can let the employee know it’s their responsibility to cooperate. The goal is to be honest with employees and let them see that the organization is committed to them having knowledge.

There have also been cases where, at the end of a conversation, it’s said, “We have limits on confidentiality; people may need to know,” and the employee replies, “You didn’t tell me that!” By simply explaining the process, including confidentiality, up front, you can let employees know the organization is being fair.

This is an area that has so many nuances. It’s important to look at those nuances and think about them. What is also important is the opportunity to talk about these situations within the organization: discuss how situations should be handled by HR professionals, business partners, employee relations specialists and even managers.

Experiential Learning at Cornell

At Cornell, we talk about the knowledge and what you need to do about confidentiality. We’re also making sure you get a chance to practice, to actually engage in handling situations where you would have to face all different things that employees would say to you about confidentiality. And the instructors in the program, because they’re practitioners, are there giving you hints and ways that you can do this in the future. 

Most people walk away saying, “I don’t think I ever really thought about how I would handle it. And I’m always so nervous when I’m sitting there.” 

Our goal is to make sure you can walk away with the confidence that you can handle situations, like confidentiality, investigations, employee relations issues, when they come to you.

Learn more about the subjects discussed in this article, and how Cornell ILR’s Human Capital Development workshops and certificates can help you effectively impact your organization.<

•    Effective Employee Relations
•    Employee Internal Investigations: Part I
•    Advanced Employee Internal Investigations: Part II
•    Internal Investigations Note-taking and Reports

Watch the Full Video of Communicating Confidentiality