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Dec19

Confidentiality

Three residents of the Town have complained about an employee being at home when he should have been at work. The employee is a public employee. The Mayor asked me, the HR Director, to investigate this employee’s attendance. The neighbor on many occasions would email me to let me know that the employee was at home and I would make excuses for the employee. On one occasion, I communicated to the neighbor/resident that the employee was out of work due to surgery. No other medical information was released. I was terminated from employment because the Mayor indicated that I violated confidentiality. As an employer, I believe that I could disclose the employees absence as long as personal medical information is not divulged. Your opinion is requested on this.

As HR professionals we’re privy to a wide array of personal information about the employees we serve. Of course, it’s important to be aware of privacy laws as to not disclose any information in an illegal matter. But, it’s also important to consider employees’ personal matters as confidential.

It wasn’t appropriate to disclose that the employee had surgery to residents, regardless if the employee is a public employee. The residents should’ve been told that their complaints would be looked into or that the employee is currently on leave. That’s it. By disclosing that the employee had surgery, even though no specific details were included, it was still more information that a resident is entitled to have and more information that the employee may have wanted others to know.

Further, due to the sensitive nature of information HR has access to, we’re often held to a high standard when it comes to trust and confidentiality, and rightly so. When more information is shared than what is necessary then there becomes a heightened concern of what other information may be disclosed. Also, since employees must trust HR with their personal information, we risk losing that trust and tarnishing the HR-employee relationship when we disclose private information, even in good intentions.

Though you may not have violated state or federal law, specifically the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), you may have gone against an internal policy or practice of not providing details of employees’ absences to someone outside of the town board/council.

The disciplinary response to your actions varies by company. Some employers may consider this a minor infraction since medical details weren’t disclosed; thus, a warning alone may be issued. Other employers, however, take confidentiality very seriously and any infractions may warrant termination.

You may consider talking to the Mayor to explain your understanding of policy/practice, especially if there is no clear policy/practice in place. Maybe he/she will consider your argument. Or, you can use this as a learning experience and move on to your next endeavor.

HTH!

This entry was posted on Monday, December 19th, 2016 at 10:55 am and is filed under
Human Resources Management.
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