The HR Confidentiality Conundrum

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Donna J. Bear

The issue is trust. The solution is tricky. HR has long been considered the guardian of confidential employee information: pay rates, performance discussions, disciplinary actions, health factors. Yet, the very discretion with which HR operates also comes under attack as being secretive and suspicious.

Employees: Am I the victim of unfairness?
One of the common faces of organizational distrust is the fear or anger that one is being singled out in a negative manner. Employees whose performance has come under fire, who have bumped up against the policy wall or who have been told "no" in reply to a specific request wonder if the response would have been different if another employee had been in the same circumstances. Is it my age? My gender? My race? My sexual orientation? The good ol' boy network? An employee who doesn't trust the organization can latch on to any number of explanations that may someday surface in a court of law.

Supervisors: Must I defend every decision?
Apprehension about confrontations with employees who are unhappy with (or simply curious about) situations is also a response to low organizational trust. A first-line supervisor faces a difficult test when challenged by a disgruntled employee demanding answers. Perceptions of unfairness are often brought about by how similarly situated employees have been treated in the past. In these discussions, a clear policy is the supervisor's friend, yet such policies cannot and, indeed, should not address every circumstance. Supervisors want and need the flexibility to use their judgment in making decisions that both comply with company-issued policies and serve the needs of the people involved. It is the application of that judgment that comes into question when an employee challenges a supervisor about co-workers' similar situations.

Employees: Am I getting what I truly deserve?
Another face of distrust is the doubt that one is being given the respect and rewards he or she feels have been earned. This often surfaces even in top performers. These employees may struggle with a nagging feeling that their organization is taking advantage of them. They question if they are being fairly paid and if their efforts are noticed. These are the employees who vote with their feet, often creating unwanted and expensive turnover. Dr. Michelle Reina of the Reina Trust Building Institute in Vermont says that employees who doubt their supervisor is making sufficient use of their unique skills is but one example of the trust issues that plague HR. "Not feeling trusted, they are not trusting in return," said Dr. Reina in Training ("Office Trust Busters," 2006).

Supervisors: How much should I reveal?
Frustration is yet another result of low organizational trust when the equitability of HR programs comes into question. There was a time when clearly communicated merit pay schemes created a framework of openness and fairness. But small reward budgets in recent years have made it difficult to differentiate adequately between mediocre and star performers. What's more, even rewards and recognition programs designed to offer performance bonuses as an incentive can backfire when publicity for a select few fosters resentment in the rest of the workforce. Questions, even those unasked, about how money is allocated, to whom and for what can be a source of distrust.

HR uncovered
One organization that recently dealt with a grass-roots challenge to its HR system is the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC). A 2005 mandate to overhaul the HR system that had been in place for nearly 20 years resulted in new policies for the state's 21 colleges (Ryan, 2008). In introducing an accelerated training program in compensation and total rewards in 2007, the WVHEPC took the unusual step of opening it up to nonfaculty staff as well as the HR administrators. "It was always frustrating that most of HR was treated as a secret or so complicated that the average individual would never understand," said Terry Nebel, an IT manager who often fielded questions from staff members about pay classifications (p. 50). The training allowed participants to feel knowledgeable and credible about the appropriateness of their compensation recommendations and "created trust and understanding between HR and classified employees," according to HR administrator Patricia Clay (p. 51).

Inquiring minds want to know
Supervisors want to be perceived as open communicators yet feel their hands are tied when it comes to producing acceptable responses to employees who want answers. The unexpected termination of a long-term employee or the sudden absence of a key team member for health reasons are examples of situations where frank discussions and canned responses clash, with the generic, approved message usually emerging the winner. Whether the motivation is respect for privacy or avoidance of liability, "no news" often trumps "bad news," leaving employees to create their own backstories.

In an era of litigation and privacy concerns, HR's protection of employees' situations must be maintained. In an era of technologies such as blogs and discussion communities, that protection can weaken . Discussions over cubicle walls or over beers will fill in the blanks, regardless of whether it is with speculation or with the truth.

An environment of trust
Whether distrust springs from fear, anger, apprehension, doubt, frustration or some other factor, it should be uprooted. The HR organization that can create the fine balance between transparency and confidentiality will garner and deserve employee trust.

For more information, visit the institute's Website at

"Office Trust Busters," Training []. July 2006, pp. 10–11.
Ryan, E. (2008, January). West Virginia Higher Education reveals HR secrets to employees. workspan. pp. 49–51.

About the Author(s)

Donna J. Bear is the Leadership Knowledge Center Manager for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. She has a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.S. degree in management and is certified as a senior professional in human resources. Her previous experience as an HR generalist/consultant spans the PEO, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors.