“Is it a violation of privacy if my supervisor told Human Resources that I am seeking counseling from Employee Assistance Program at work?”

Question: If I tell my immediate supervisor that I am going to call the Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”) health line to get some counseling for work related stress, but don’t want him to tell Human Resources because of trust issues, is it a violation of my privacy if my boss then goes and tells Human Resources?

He told me that he gave Human Resources some referral name of counselors for me. I was shocked.

 Name Withheld
Tracy, California

Answer: Employee Assistance Programs (often called “EAP’s”) are services offered by employers to employees with issues in their personal lives that may affect their work lives. These programs are becoming more and more common, as employers see the value in helping valued employees in these ways who might otherwise leave their jobs, or be less effective on their jobs. 

In general, Employee Assistance Programs are offered by larger employers. Some are “in house”, that is, run by the employers, but many are provided by outside vendor companies whose businesses are to provide EAP assistance. The “issues” commonly addressed by EAP’s include substance abuse, emotional distress, child care and parental care issues, health care concerns, family or personal relationship issues, work relationship issues, and other matters that tend to overwhelm employees.

Each company and each vendor has its own “rules” about how EAP’s are supposed to work. It is extremely common for EAP programs to guarantee absolute confidentiality of who is using them, and for what, because employees would otherwise fear that word will spread of their “issue.”  Employees are almost always encouraged to contact EAP programs directly.

Your sharing with your supervisor that you were planning to call EAP at your work was, frankly, probably an error of judgment. He may not have heard or understood your request that he not share this with Human Resources, he may not have appreciated the depth of your distrust of Human Resources, or he may just have forgotten your request. There’s even a chance he did what he did with malice. However, he could not have done what he did had you not mentioned your intentions to him in the first place.

Yes, I do believe your privacy rights were probably violated by what your supervisor did. He was wrong. But I do hope you can appreciate the proverb that goes “When you tell someone a secret, you give them a burden that few will carry.” In the eyes of the law, you were probably a contributor to the violation of your privacy, if not its primary cause.

I do not mean to cast blame on you, or chastise you. However, where another person’s keeping something private is important to you, your own keeping the matter private is the first place to start.
Hope this helps.  Thanks for writing in.                

   Best, Al Sklover

© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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