How Personal Should Employees Get with Personnel?

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personal privacy for personnel

Employees often forget that HR works for the company, not them. HR has an obligation to keep personal employee information confidential, but there are limits, often not clearly spelled out in employee handbooks and other HR policy documents.

If an employee has personal “issues”, i.e., serious illness, legal problems, divorce, moving out of town, etc., that may potentially impact their performance at work, then HR can and will inform management of the problem. They have every right to know if employee performance may suffer due to personal circumstances.

HIPAA regulations are clearly written regarding release or sharing of an individual’s health information. But HIPAA does not cover 100% of situations where there is sharing of such material. For instance, one HIPAA provision states:

“The Privacy Rule excludes from protected health information employment records that a covered entity maintains in its capacity as an employer…”

One could read into this that anything you share with HR can go into your employee record, and therefore be exempt from HIPAA compliance.

Employees may sometimes feel compelled to share important and life changing events to HR, even if it’s just to vent or “clear the air”.  HR people are generally personable and display sensitivity to employee problems – after all that’s their job – sort of. HR is there to manage employee work related questions, issues and requests.  They are not there to solve your personal problems. HR certainly cannot offer legal or medical advice.

Especially in “Employment at Will” states, employers don’t even need to give you a reason for dismissal, except in obvious cases of discrimination and similar special situations. Frankly, as they say in the Miranda Rights, “anything you say can and will be used against you”. So before you speak, think twice, then don’t say it.

What if you simply aren’t sure if you should address a personal issue with HR, as it may likely impact your attendance or performance? A legal issue may require court and lawyer visits. A serious illness may cause similar absences. Luckily we have FMLA to cover time off for medical reasons, and FMLA protections are very broad and favor the employee. But before you run to HR for a copy of their FMLA policy, Google FMLA and educate yourself before contacting HR. In some cases you don’t necessarily want to divulge your health problems to your employer unless absolutely necessary. Your medical (or relative’s medical) problem may not be covered by FMLA, or you might not qualify based on lack of hours worked or some other reason. Remember that FMLA rules only require your employer to guarantee similar employment upon your return to work — not your same exact job. The point is, with medical issues, educate yourself and consider all options prior to informing HR.

Be careful of “water cooler” chat.  There are plenty of stories you may readily share with friends and close co-workers. But HR employees are a different animal. Those nice and professional HR folks have a different agenda and a special responsibility to the organization. Your BFF may love to hear about your weekend escapades and be happy to keep it confidential. HR may potentially view those same weekend activities as a risk to the company. You might not know until it’s too late.

And remember – anything you post to public social media sites is accessible to the world… and your HR department – and they may actually be monitoring your online posts. Take it from LBi; our HR Help Desk system provides the ability to open your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Gmail+ public pages right from your HR profile screen, with 1 mouse click. Some clients are concerned about the legality of HR using information gathered about your off-work activities, but many others readily implement the feature. Think about the possible ramifications before you post anything to the Internet.

If you still feel you must talk to HR but want to minimize the potential backlash, first ask for a copy of the employee handbook and any additional documents available regarding privacy and confidentiality. That’s a fair and ambiguous request. Read these documents thoroughly before engaging HR.  HR employees can make mistakes regarding sharing your issues, and could intentionally or inadvertently divulge confidential information in violation of company policies. That’s very good to know in advance, in the event of a dispute. Having the law on your side will help protect your rights.

Once you accept that HR works primarily for the benefit of the organization (certainly with sensitivity to employee needs), you will be better prepared to know when and when not to engage HR.