This is a real conundrum. If an employee comes to you and shares information confidentially that would otherwise be reported to HR, how do you respond?
On the one hand they are choosing to tell you for a reason. Perhaps it’s something deeply personal that is impacting their wellbeing and disrupting their work performance. Or they may have witnessed behavior from a coworker that violates employee policy and is possibly illegal.
So how do you know when something you are told in confidence needs to be reported to HR?
Here we offer advice to help you make the right decision.
Instances of Illegal Activity
There’s no middle ground here. If an employee confides in you about observing a coworker’s illegal activity, you must report it.
- Conduct that goes against workplace standards such as discrimination or sexual harassment must be reported. The company is required to act, and as the business owner, you too, are obligated to share information to avoid issues such as lawsuits or being held culpable for allowing the behavior to continue.
- Criminal conduct, such as stealing, selling drugs, acts of violence, stalking or threatening co-workers, etc.
- Violations related to health and safety, which might be regulatory in nature based on your particular industry. You might have a way around this by using a hotline or suggesting the employee make an anonymous complaint to protect their privacy.
Any of these situations need to be addressed as soon as possible.
Mental Health Concerns
If an employee shares concerns regarding a coworker’s possible mental health concerns, this information does need to remain confidential. However, depending on the nature of the concerns i.e. if they feel the employee presents a threat to others then HR should be informed. You’ll have to ensure the employee in question is protected from discrimination issues, and also look into making accommodations for them. In some states, employees are actually legally obligated to report known mental health issues once the information has been disclosed.
If the employee explicitly points out they are sharing the information in confidence, you really do have a responsibility to respect that confidence. This is very important because you want your team to feel they can trust you as the business owner.
However, if the nature of what they tell you is illegal or against regulations, there are ways you can confirm the information, so that you can take the necessary action.
You can keep an eye on the person to try to witness their behavior first hand and then let the person who told you in confidence know you have decided to act as a result of what you saw.
The bottom line is that having employees share confidences with you can come up quite unexpectedly. However, if they do use the word “confidence” it’s always safest to let them know there are certain things that you are obligated to act on.