Never promise secrecy: Clarify ‘Need-to-Know’ policy

Say a female employee requests an off-the-record conversation with you. You explain that you’ll share her information only on a “need-to-know” basis.

The employee proceeds to describe a nasty sexual-harassment incident. She doesn’t want to push it further, but you need to begin an investigation to protect the rest of the staff (and your company from a lawsuit). The employee is hurt because she thought “need to know” meant the discussion was confidential.

Bottom line: You need a clear policy for handling off-the-record conversations.

“I tell clients all the time that the most dangerous first question an employee can ask is, ‘Can we talk off the record?’ But many HR people aren’t prepared for it,” says Louis Rabaut, a partner with Warner Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids, MI.

Mishandled confidential information can lead to lawsuits, hurt the morale of employees, damage their reputations in the workplace and threaten their jobs.

Creating a policy: 3 tips

1. Go beyond the boilerplate phrase, “We will share information on a need-to-know basis.” Rabaut suggests: “We can’t always promise confidentiality, but we want to be mindful of our employees’ privacy rights. To respect the privacy of individuals in this organization, the HR department has a general policy that it will release information about employees strictly on a need-to-know basis with the appropriate person or people within the organization.”

2. Don’t promise confidentiality. When an employee wants to reveal something confidential, set the ground rules by saying: “I can try to handle it confidentially, but if you tell me something that I have a duty to share with the appropriate people, then I must do so.”

3. Protect yourself from “reluctant victims.” Suppose an employee reveals confidential info but insists that HR take no action. Do the following: Have the employee sign a dated letter describing what she revealed, and explaining that she requested no HR action. That protects you if the employee later “remembers” that she asked HR to act on the complaint. (Don’t use this approach for serious matters, such as sexual harassment and embezzlement.)