Can You Trust HR?

November 4, 2014

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When trouble is brewing, it is important to have a safe place to turn for support, advice, and counsel. The trouble might be your own, or you might have trouble with one of your direct reports. Sometimes, it’s not possible to turn to your own manager for such support, or you might just want to talk your thoughts and ideas through with someone before involving your manager. Your first stop is often HR—but can you trust HR?

In most cases, yes. Most HR professionals get into this line of work with the best of intentions. HR is, after all, a helping function. It helps align organizational processes, systems, and culture to best achieve business goals. It helps surface and resolve conflict. It also helps managers become leaders.

Good HR work relies on a base of solid values, including collaboration, inclusion, integrity, and objectivity. The vast majority of HR professionals are capable of consistently managing confidentiality while providing a balanced perspective about the different approaches you could apply to your situation. The vast majority of HR professionals consciously seek to avoid using information in any way that can make people vulnerable.

All in all, you can trust most people in HR. That said, when human beings are involved, nothing is perfect.

Confidentiality Breaches in HR

You can trust HR to maintain confidentiality in most situations. However, there are three rare exceptions:

1. Legal Obligations

There are some situations that require HR to protect the interests of the company and its employees, even if you ask them not to share the information further. An example of this would be if you were to bring a claim of sexual harassment to your HR representative. Under these (and similar) situations, HR is required to investigate and resolve the claim. Experienced HR professionals typically articulate such requirements before they will agree to maintain confidentiality.

2. Inexperience and Human Error

Remember that while your HR support is likely trustworthy and on your side, they are also likely managing quite a bit of information across your organization. They are also human, and humanly imperfect. The more experienced your HR partner, the more skilled they are likely to be when juggling complex and conflicting information. How experienced is your HR partner? Is the information you share likely to put them in a compromising position? You may wish to weigh these factors before choosing to share. To most HR professionals, mistakes like these are incredibly painful because they represent a conflict with core values—and they represent the opposite of what we intended to do: Help.

3. The Catbert Effect

There are some mean people in the world, and occasionally they make their way into HR. People resembling Dilbert’s Catbert the Evil HR Director are very rare and, fortunately, they are easy to spot as their reputation usually precedes them. Their behavior has nothing to do with you and can be erratic and even a little scary. It is best to avoid them or deal with them as minimally as possible. If the generalist or HR business partner supporting you falls in this category, seek safe counsel elsewhere.

How to Build a Trusting Relationship with Your HR Partner

To build a trusting relationship with your HR partner, follow these easy steps:

  1. Understand how HR service is delivered within your organization. What model of HR service delivery is in use and how does your HR representative see their role? Knowing what is in and out of scope can help you to understand what to expect when you need to seek assistance.
  2. Proactively build a relationship with HR. Don’t wait until there is a crisis with a nasty Employee Relations issue bubbling up to build your relationship with HR.  During that crisis, you’ll need to have an already established relationship!   Schedule regular meetings, drop in, and include HR in your thought process early and often.  Take the opportunity to proactively seek feedback about the impact of your own behavior and demonstrate your growing leadership capability.
  3. Set clear boundaries around information exchanged. Most HR indiscretions are the result of unclear boundaries. Be explicitly clear about what you are asking HR to do as a result of your sharing of confidential information. Do you want HR to keep it in the vault and throw away the key so you can take action on your own behalf? Do you want them to take every opportunity to influence an outcome you are seeking to achieve? Do you want them to intervene directly? Such agreements and courses of action are best negotiated every time you exchange information.
  4. Test your HR partner’s ability to manage confidentiality. Start with lower-stakes information sharing. (Remember to set those boundaries!) If you suspect a data breach, constructively confront your HR partner. For example, you might say:“It is tremendously important that I have a safe place to seek advice.  I thought what I told you was in the vault, but my manager just called me in to ask if everything was all right.  Can we reconfirm the boundaries around confidentiality?”  If their reaction includes an apology, you will both learn from the process. If their reaction is defensiveness and denial, proceed with caution.
  5. Trust your gut. All human relationships are incredibly complex. Your intuition is your friend. Use it as another data point in the process of deciding what to share—and what not to share—with HR.

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Open communication can enable trusting relationships between you and your coworkers. Learn more with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Keli Trejo spent the first phase of her career in corporate HR roles, and is darn proud of those HR roots. Today, she brings over 20 years of that HR experience to her role as an Executive Coach and Consultant. Keli specializes in building client awareness around the impact of their behavior on organization dynamics, and developing behaviors that lead to greater individual and organizational success. Keli established her coaching practice, Executive Launch and Reboot, to help leaders who were recently promoted or hired as they assimilate to expectations and culture in their new role or company. You can find her online at Maya Townsend went from hiding in the corner at networking events to leading a company (Partnering Resources) that helps individuals, teams, and organizations thrive in our networked world. Using the science underlying human relationships and networks, she uncovers sound, practical methods for making soft skills generate hard results. Co-editor of The Handbook for Strategic HR, she'll happily tell you why you should throw out your performance reviews and why most HR departments need a complete makeover.


  1. avatar

    Ed makes some great points. What I particularly like throughout is the emphasis on mutual responsibility for the relationship. The best way for HR not to suck – I hear that regularly – is for line managers to expect HR to be part of their team, consulting and advising, not just fixing problems, which looks like colluding.

    For all its faults, HR partners often find themselves in no-win situations. Expectations of line managers are so varied and towering: “Get the systems, processes, and transactions right; do it yesterday; don’t inquire too much whether what I want is the right solution; why can’t you do teambuilding this afternoon – it’s 9:00 a.m.?; and now that you’ve nominally satisfied my needs, how come you’re not more strategic?” Like Ed, I’ve worked alongside HR and sometimes been disappointed. But they serve where it’s hard to consistently succeed. They deserve better; trust but verify.

  2. avatar

    Numbers 3 – 5 in the section, “How to Build a Trusting Relationship with Your HR Partner,” are very important. I do independent consulting now, but as an organizational development consultant, I have been housed within HR several times in my career. My concerns with HR confidentiality are not about “mean,” Catbert-style HR directors, but about HR directors who see their responsibilities, self-definition and future advancement tied in with senior managers above all other considerations. I have been in situations of moving from one room, where we had promised “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” confidentiality to staff members, into another room with the HR director who immediately wanted to know what was said and who said what.
    There is great wisdom in your advice to set clear boundaries, take small steps to test it out, and “trust your gut.”

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