Confidential Information

“Shhh, it’s absolutely confidential.”

I don’t know how many times people have come to my office, shut the door behind them and said those words, or something similar. Then they tell me something intensely dull and boring (“We’re thinking of rolling out a new benefits form. This one won’t mention the actual dollar amount of the copays. We’re hoping to cut down on complaints.”)

Okay, there are some interesting things said as well. Well, they used to be interesting. Everything is interesting to the new person in HR. You get to know who is being hired and who is being fired, who committed “gross misconduct” (don’t ask) and what everyone’s raise is going to be. Yippee! Except that after you’ve seen your 27,000th raise that week and audited the data until your eyeballs bled you don’t care much.

Except, when everyone is intent on keeping this particular piece of confidential information so confidential that you can’t discuss it with your co-workers, superiors or (heaven forbid), underlings. Then, it becomes interesting. Oh, not that Jane Doe is being fired because her work has really gone down hill over the past 6 months. That’s old hat. What is interesting is the reasons they want to keep it confidential.

Now, granted, all of this is still interesting to those outside of HR. But those of us in the thick of it just don’t care any more. So, here are my thoughts about keeping HR information from other HR people.

1. If you can’t keep your mouth shut, you have no business being in HR. Instead of HR bigwigs thinking up all sorts of rules to keep information under lock and key, they should hire people who can deal with it and fire people who can’t.

2. Race and Gender are fairly obvious things. Really, they are. So, don’t get all freaky about a report on another HR professional’s desk that contains that information about employees. Yes, we don’t post our racial makeup in the company cafeteria, but we’re all HR here. Plus, we have access to the system and can run our own reports that display that information, if we so desire. HR can get way too panicked about such things and the results are almost comical.

3. We know executives are overpaid. We wish we were executives. We do not discuss executive salaries with people who do not need to know So, when you are in my office, asking a compensation question, if the door is shut, you don’t need to whisper and tell me that this is “really confidential”. First of all, even if the people around me could hear, they don’t care. Second, they have access to the information as well and could look it up. Third, it’s another executive salary question. It’s not interesting.

4. When you try to hide what you have done, more people end up knowing about it then would ordinarily know. And more discussion takes place then would normally take place. Why? Because we have to call people and ask them to go outside normal channels. They need approval to go around established rules. So, they have to call people. Everyone has to explain to everyone else why we need this exception. (“Because it’s confidential. Shh!”) If you just followed normal procedures, whatever exception you thought was so juicy would be processed and ignored just like everything else.

Now, for outside HR, none of the above apply. (Well, number 4 applies everywhere. The more you try to hide, the more widely it will be known.) But inside? Either be a professional about confidential information or get out. One bad apple makes the rest of us crabby.

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7 thoughts on “Confidential Information

  1. Bravo! You can say it like no other and get right at many of my very same frustrations. It drives me crazy when HR staff members and managers want to speak in “code.” Share it all so we know what you are talking about. The details absolutely do make a difference and yes, you can trust us!

  2. It is even worse in a job that holds a government clearance. Sometimes you wonder, “Why is this Secret?” or even worse, “Why is this Top Secret?”

  3. foculbrown–Ha! I bet that is annoying. And those of us can come home and share with our spouses (within reason of course), but you get to go to jail if you share!

    (Or at least I think you do. I’ve never needed a security clearance. I’m nervous I wouldn’t be able to get one because I ate grapes at the grocery store when I was 5 because I was mad that my mom wouldn’t buy them. I’m always afraid that will catch up to me some day.)

  4. Some very good points. In my organization, the HR director became known as someone who couldn’t keep confidential information secret and it was really damaging to the workplace. The employees lost trust in HR and began approaching any new initiative or announcement with deep cynacism and suspicion. The HR director was promoted to another position and a really good person was hired into her job, but the damage was done – the new HR director has spent most of her time trying to regain trust in HR.

  5. Yes, a little bit of blabbing can ruin an entire department. That’s why I think it’s critical to hire people you can trust.

  6. I have a question.

    Should a CEO have the right to demand confidential information to be told to him/her?

    How much should a CEO be allowed to know and when does it become more confidential that he/she is not permitted to know?

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