From The Straits Times    |

Credit: ST

A culture of transparency or “no secrets” has been embraced by many firms, but what if you find out that other colleagues somehow know of personal details that you only shared with the human resources (HR) team at your company? What should you do?

Employees in this position should begin by documenting all instances when colleagues showed they knew information they were not privy to, said Dr David Leong, managing director of PeopleWorldwide Consulting.

They should gather e-mails, text messages and anything else that shows the communicated information was shared without consent.

They should then request a meeting with the HR staff member who they believe shared the information, as well as a more senior HR manager, to present their concerns and seek an explanation, Dr Leong added.

If the matter still cannot be settled, the employee should take the matter to an even more senior HR manager or the company’s executive team.

A formal complaint, such as through a union or an external body like the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, might be needed for serious breaches.

If the information is possibly protected by privacy laws like the Personal Data Protection Act, the affected employee could consult a lawyer on his options for recourse, said Dr Leong.

But he noted that HR departments require various types of personal information to perform their duties, including employees’ contact information and emergency contacts.

HR may also need an employee’s performance and employment history, such as resumes, performance review results or past disciplinary actions, to make decisions about promotions, raises and training opportunities.

Personal data may also be needed to administer an employee’s payroll and benefits, such as medical history that the company’s insurance provider needs, said Ms Jean Yang, HR business partner for South-east Asia at Robert Walters.

“If employees are not comfortable disclosing this information, they can ask HR about the information required for their employment, so that the appropriate documents can be provided if needed,” she said.

Dr Leong said that HR departments may seek medical details from an employee so they can make reasonable accommodation for disabilities, meet public health guidelines, manage sick leave or handle compensation claims.

Still, an employee is typically not required to disclose specific health conditions or treatments, he noted.

Other types of sensitive personal information an employee is not obligated to disclose include those related to personal family matters, sexual orientation, as well as political and religious beliefs, Dr Leong said.

However, he added that exceptions may apply for administering employee benefits, arranging religious accommodation, or if the information relates to job tasks employees perform, he added.

If such details are requested, Dr Leong said employees can tactfully decline by expressing appreciation for the interest but adding that they prefer to keep the matter private, before seeking confirmation that their professional standing and work opportunities would not be affected.

He also advises employees to ask for more context, such as asking: “Could you help me understand how this information relates to my role or job performance? I’m not entirely comfortable sharing this information, and I want to make sure it’s necessary before I consider doing so.”

Both experts also said an organisational culture of openness with “no secrets” is no justification for HR staff to disclose sensitive personal details about an employee’s personal circumstances.

However, they said personal details may be shared for investigations into a harassment or discrimination claim, workplace safety in situations involving violence or sexual harassment, legal compliance or when employees might have put themselves or others at risk.

Dr Leong said: “Information disclosure by HR needs to be dealt with sensitively and discreetly, or the information disclosed may lead to shaming, embarrassment or even office politicking conversations.”

This article was originally published on The Straits Times.