“Can I trust Human Resources to keep things confidential?”

Question: I’m a technical recruiter who is paid salary and commission. Recently our company drastically changed our commission structure, making all of the technical recruiters very unhappy. When I spoke to my Manager about it, he suggested I take the issue to Human Resources.

Three of us went to the Vice President of Human Resources to share our concerns. He asked us to put our concerns in writing. We asked him if he would then keep the details of what we said confidential, and he agreed to do so, and to transmit only in general terms our thoughts and concerns to the Compensation Committee. Definitely not our names. I drafted a summary of our collective thoughts, which was approved by my two colleagues. I then sent it to the Vice President of Human Resources, with a cover note reminding him of his promise to keep our names and the details of what we said confidential, but only to share our general thoughts and concerns. 

An hour later, my Manager came into my office and asked me for a copy of what I sent to HR. He told me that he was now “in deep trouble.” Since then he has been very cold and critical to me. I have heard him tell people that I “threw him under the bus.” It seems that the Vice President of Human Resources told the Compensation Committee that my Manager instructed us to make “demands” and “fight” the new commission structure.

Did the Vice President of Human Resources have the right to violate his promise of confidentiality? 

Fremont, California

Answer: Dear Racquel:   

I’m sorry to say it, but you were not wise, reasonable or rational when you relied on the “promise” of confidentiality made to you by the Vice President of Human Resources. You violated what I call “The Five Rules of Human Resources”: 

a. Rule #1: Human Resources works for management, not for employees. For some reason I don’t understand, many people believe that Human Resources exists to help employees in dealing with their bosses. It is quite the opposite: Human Resources exists to help management deal with their employees. While I counsel and represent many Human Resources personnel and executives, know them to be good and honorable people, and know that they can be very kind, gracious and understanding when dealing with employees, their job is not to take care of employees, but instead it is to help management in dealing with employees.   

b. Rule #2: It is not Human Resources’ job to provide “fairness” or “justice,” but rather efficient management of – sorry to use this phrase – “Human Resources.” As members of our “SkloverWorkingWisdom Family” know, I really do not like the phrase “human resources,” because I feel it is impersonal and dehumanizing. It defines Human Beings not as persons with rights, feelings and perspectives, but instead as “resources” of commercial enterprises. I think it evokes a sense of ownership, exploitation and even slavery. Let’s face it: the job of Human Resources is to “efficiently acquire, maintain and dispose of human resources,” just as a commercial enterprise “acquires, maintains and disposes of” other resources, like fuel, furniture and equipment. History teaches us that before people are comfortable with hurting other people, first they must “dehumanize” them. I detest dehumanization. Don’t ever look to Human Resources for fairness; that’s got nothing to do with their job.  

c. Rule #3: Don’t expect Human Resources to “enforce the rules.” Organizations have certain “rules” that they call policies, procedures and practices, among other things. All employees are expected to follow those “rules.” However, don’t expect Human Resources to be the “enforcers” of the rules. If they were, we’d make them wear badges, give them cars with sirens, and call them the Police Department. It is just not rational to expect Human Resources to “come to the rescue” of employees being treated in violation of the “rules.” 

d. Rule #4: Human Resources is not bound by any “promises” of confidentiality. Each person has something of a duty to others to fulfill their promises, if they can. However, Human Resources has a greater duty to Management to fulfill: to report what they have learned about employees to Management if they feel it might help Management “efficiently and effectively manage their human resources.” (There’s that term again.) While a promise is a promise, a promise of confidentiality by Human Resources is not a promise you can enforce, or for that matter, depend on.

e. Rule #5: Most of all, never expect a Human Resources representative to risk his or her job for yours. So many times I have seen employees expect Human Resources representatives to courageously risk their own jobs in order to do “what is right.” It is simply unreasonable to expect any other person to risk his or her job for you. Sure, it would be a courageous thing to do, but to expect that is just not reasonable, or rational.

No one should think that I do not like Human Resources professionals. I do. In fact, I think they have a very difficult role in this new world we live in, in which many employers feel they are under so much pressure they must do things they wish they did not have to do. Still, we all need to be honest – with ourselves and with each other – about the job, role, responsibilities and limitations of the “Human Resources” department and its staff members, who we used to refer to as “Personnel,” to use the “personal” word I prefer.      

Al Sklover

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© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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