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Monday, January 26, 2009

Confidential Email

I have a question I am hoping you can answer as I have been searching the Internet for about three hours now and have found nothing. I did what was probably a really stupid thing to do. I was very ill and so not using my best judgment I wrote an email to our (evil??) HR lady. In this email I expressed my gross intolerance for a coworker. I posed, in a not so nice way, the question of why someone as inefficient as them could be allowed to keep their job for so long. I then went on to make a few snide remarks about the company for letting this go on so long. I know, I know, I know..... never in writing, but like I said I was sick and my judgment (not to mention my patience) was a bit off.

Come to find out the email had been forwarded to the COO (small company...about 40 employees) of the company and then to my direct supervisor from the COO. Now I feel like a total idiot. What I want to know is if the company's HR rep violated any laws by doing this. I know it was completely immoral, but was it illegal?

Well, it's not illegal (she says in her non-lawyer, non legal advice way). HR people are not required to keep a confidence as a doctor, priest or lawyer is. In fact, part of our job is to blab. Which means that I'm also going to suggest that it wasn't necessarily immoral either.

Let the angry evil HR comments begin.

HR represents the company, not the employee. This sometimes requires following up on a complaint. Now, your company is small, so you probably actually have a relationship with your HR person. If I'd received such and e-mail and I knew it was out of character for you, I might have e-mailed it back and said, "Did you mean to hit send?"

But, having a productive workforce is part of HR's long list of responsibilities. I have to assume that if you tell me a co-worker is a complete slacker that you want something done about it. Not knowing your company culture or the organizational structure I can't comment on whether it was appropriate to forward the e-mail to the COO.

Actually, I can. I would think the proper thing to do would be to find out myself if there was a problem with your co-worker, or with you, and then decide who needs to know. But in a company that small, the COO very well could be the right person.

We understand that sometimes steam needs to be blown off. We also sometimes over-react. Some people would send off an e-mail like this and wonder why in the heck no one brought it to the COO's attention! You can't win in this HR business.

What should you do? Apologize for losing your temper. Get back to work. Hope your co-worker doesn't find out about it. Address it head on with your boss. And finally, read the comments here, as my readers will have better advice.


CyberSusanH said...

Too often employees come to HR to bitch about a co-worker, but aren't prepared to take responsibility for their concerns or statements. When this happens, I generally listen, make a note of the facts of the rant, ask clarifying questions, and wait for them to get it all out. Once quiet, I ask "Why are you telling me this? Is this something you would like me to help with, or did you just need to get that off your chest?" (but in a nice way, really). If it's the former, we start talking about who needs to know and what I'll do next, and make it clear to the employee how and when their name, comments, examples will be used. If it's the latter, I promptly boot them out of my office, internally grumbling and wondering why their cat couldn't have played the role of shoulder-supplier.

Greg said...

I never leave a negative written trail, unless it is a formal ("for the record") statement.

If there is anything negative to be discussed, I try to do it in person. If I am unable to, a phone call.

But never, never, never written. Electronic data can never be erased.

Charles said...

In my opinion since you ("probably" stupidly, you admitted) sent an email to the HR person it would be immoral for her to NOT follow up on it. And rather than try to repeat what you said she simply let the COO see what you said.

I think that what was done by her is what I would have (I am not an HR person - I am a corporate trainer and would have done the same thing unless I was asked to keep the complaint confidential - in which case, depending on the circumstances, I might bring it to the attention of the manager without stating who said it)

I also only see two things that you can do here:

One, which you have already done, is let this be a learning experience for you and others - NEVER put into writing . . . (as a corporate trainer I am always writing evaluations about trainees and a rule of thumb I use is to always be honest, but write the evaluations as if the person's mother will be reading them - my comments here are an exceptions that that rule)

Two, approach the HR person, your supervisor, and maybe the COO to explain (with apologies!) as you have somewhat stated in your email to Evil HR Lady and express regret. Be sure that you are not expresssing regret at you looking like a fool; express regret that you were so harsh and hope that no one was offended by your unprofessional actions.

I realize that I am not giving advice or saying anything really different from Evil HR Lady; But I also have a few questions:

How did you find out that the COO got this email? Can you approach him without it looking like you were gossiping around the water cooler? You might just earn yourself a pink slip that way.

Why does this co-worker's ineffiency bother you? Does it increase you workload or have some impact on your performance in any way? If not, then it really should not have been your place to say anything.

And lastly, why are you upset to the point that you are looking at the HR person as having done something wrong rather than yourself? Or is it that you realize that you are now looking less-than-professional and are trying to cover your tracks?

Sorry to be so harsh in my questions; But as a corporate trainer I see all kinds of such behavior and wonder, myself, why some people are still employed; how management can let it go on for so long.

(what? Us corporate trainer types cannot be evil in our comments?)

Angela said...

As a corporate trainer myself, I would have spoken to you about it first. I would have asked you if you wanted something to be said or not - kind of what the first commenter said.

People used to bring me issues all of the time and I would go ahead and bring them to the attention of the appropriate folks without using any names.

As Evil HR Lady said, HR represents the company, not the employees. However, I would think that in a company that small, she would know you pretty well and also have made time to chat with you about this before she went to the COO with it.

But then I have a more idealized vision of employee relations than most people do. :D


The Office Newb said...

I was just discussing this sort of thing with a friend yesterday. As a former supervisor, I used to get complaints about my employees all the time (they were bad but I couldn't fire them--long story). Stuff like, "Stacy writes emails that are too long and boring" or "Max doesn't proof his work before he sends it to me."

This is all well and good but at the same time understand that I cannot control my employees' every move. If you want to complain, go ahead and get it off your chest, but if you want something done about it, be prepared to offer real solutions or don't expect anything to change.

HR Minion said...

I probably would have talked to the person sending the email first but this is definitely something that I would want to discuss with their supervisor. You can't expect your HR person to stay quiet if you say or do things that could cause problems for the company. It's unreasonable to think otherwise.

Malcolm Chlan said...

yeah that is something you never really want to do in writing. It can be held against you in so many ways. HR departments can do what they want, to an extent. Especially at a smaller company chances are she is friends with the higher ups.

Rachel - I Hate HR said...

You did something stupid so you try to blame HR. How typical...

Ask a Manager said...

I guess I'm wondering why you emailed the HR woman in the first place if you didn't want her to do something about what you were saying. It would have been a good professional courtesy for her to tell you she was going to share your concerns with the COO, but what exactly had you been expecting her to do?

Anonymous said...

Does it help to know that we've all done that exactly once? Get your mail forwarded to the wrong person just once and you never have to do it again.

Sadistic Manager said...

Depending on how forceful the tone of your email, your HR lady may have felt obligated to share your complaint, whether you wanted it shared or not. If you made it feel like you're completely oppressed and gave her the earmarks of a hostile working environment, she wouldn't have had any ethical choice but to investigate it and report it to the proper people in chain of command.

I agree with previous advice: apologize for airing your concerns in a less than constructive way, and deal with issues head-on in the future.

And whatever drugs you were taking for the sickness that made you act so out-of-character in the first place? Share.

Office Worker said...

I have seen my HR trying to twist and add some black spots to my record by way of trying to pursue some non-existent female harrasements!!

ERHL Follower said...

Even though I completely agree with the advice given, I do have a question for EHRL and the other HR professionals here:

Why is it that usually it is recommended that someone complains about an inefficient coworker only if said coworker's behavior directly affects your workload or performance?

My reasoning is, sometimes supervisors can't easily see when someone is being a slacker, and I think it *is* the business of others - even if not directly impacted - to point it out to someone who could intervene. That is because inefficient/incompetent workers end up affecting the bottom line of a company, ultimately impacting every other employee by putting their jobs at risk.

What do you think? (By the way, as a consultant, I only state my opinion about someone's competency when specifically asked by a client, and in this case, I try to be as frank as possible and give examples if the worker doesn't perform well.)

Thomas said...

"HR represents the company, not the employee"

...and this is why unions are so important...

Fedup Accountant said...

Here is why people think HR is evil:

It's funny when HR acts like everything is life or death when evaluating a potential low-level job candidate whose salary will be 1/1,000th of the CEO, yet the irresponsible CEO's and other top executives waste millions on remodeling offices and bonuses, but that doesn't seem to make HR flinch an eyebrow. So to recap if you are applying to wash the fishtanks in the office be prepared to go under super secret background checks, interviewed 6 times, analyzed by your body language, lied to about the job responsibilities, and answer dumb questions like what is your weakness (how about my weakness is barfing when I get asked cheesy lame questions??), but if you become a CEO feel free to have your mortgage paid, run the company into the ground, lie to your workers, get gov't handouts, and never get HR wondering how to fire you without getting sued (and who cares if you get fired we will give you a parting gift of $80m, sound good?).

So you see it's really a matter of priorities and hate to say it, but HR needs a serious priority enema. They built this culture of irresponsibility by always taking the company's side over the employees that built the company, but the poster above me said it best by quoting someone in hr "HR represents the company, not the employee", maybe just maybe that is why our companies are failing and crooks at the top get away with millions.

jaded hr rep said...

@Thomas - hardly, and I have parents who are in unions, so I'm not anti-union because I'm in HR. I find the unions extremely frustrating and ineffective in addressing my parents' needs as a worker. I've only worked for non-union and most of our employees are happy with their treatment.

I agree with Evil HR Lady, so I won't belabor the point. To other comments:
1. If someone came to me and said an employee's emails are too long and boring, I'd tell her to give that feedback to the manager. If the manager agrees this is a problem, it is the manager's job to offer that feedback and to help him improve on this. It's called employee development, Managers!

2. Bringing issues (except illegal, ethical ones) that don't impact you directly makes you look like a whiner. It also doesn't help build a collaborative work environment if employees feel they are being monitored by everyone, and that any disgression will have Mr. Tattletale running to HR.

HR Godess said...

I agree with most of what EHRL said. However, I think HR represents BOTH the company and the employees. I think it's important the employees have a voice, while maintaining the integrity of the company and their policies.

My question would be: was it out of character for you to fire off an email like that? If you are a good performer and don't complain and are generally happy and a team player and I got an email like you described, I would be concerned and start looking into it. If you weren't in the office, I'd have to start with whoever supervises the person you were complaining about. And unfortunately, in a small company, the higher ups do want to know and should know what's happening.

As far as Fed up Accountant is concerned, you think HR doesn't notice or care what the CEO is doing however often times we report to that very person and our comments are not welcomed or considered when received. Just because you don't hear us address a situation doesn't mean it isn't addressed!

Olivia said...

FedUp - HR is probably the group MOST fed up with the kind of greedy CEO's you mention. Alas, that greedy CEO is held in check very loosely - either they own the company themselves, or report to BOD or Shareholders who may or may not give a damn. Oh, they also have the power to readily fire the HR types, and/or use them as scapegoats/shields for the decisions which negatively impact their employees. Most HR types do care very much about the employees, and try to do right by them as well as the company, but if the guy who pays your salary says, fire 20% of the staff, what option do we have except to try to come up with ways to soften the blow, or create a fair selection process?

Just another HR lady... said...

Yikes to the poster, I always advise people to wait a day before sending an angry letter/e-mail giving them time to calm down and see reason. But as you did send it, you're going to have to bite the bullet and apologize. Your concerns may have had validity, but your approach totally overshadowed what you were trying to say.

In terms of HR, I have to be honest here and say that if I received this type of e-mail from an employee, I would probably contact them to talk about it first, unless the intent or information was of a nature where I would have to take some kind of action. (i.e. threats of violence, retaliation, real anger, safety, harassment, fraud, etc.). If those elements were not present, I would have contacted the person to find out the deal and ask if they want me to escalate their comments or if they were just blowing off steam. It is possible that your letter was so alarming that the HR person felt that they had to action it.

However, there is a common misperception that HR must keep everything they hear from employees confidential, regardless of what it is. I do agree that HR is there for BOTH the employees and the company, and because of that (we are protecting everyone's interests, not just one person), there are some cases where we simply cannot keep an issue confidential, mainly in the situations as above. In all of those cases, I would still advise the "confessor" that I have to action the item and would not be able to keep their information confidential.

Bit of a horror story...I came into a new company at one point in my career, and discovered that in the past there had been an issue of an anonymous written threat of violence towards another employee. An investigation had been done and the investigators were not able to determine who wrote the letter, although it clearly was from another employee. A person within the company was blamed by most of the other employees, although not formally disciplined since there was no proof or confession(she was socially shunned and scorned, and in some cases, confronted). When I arrived in the company and was checking out files, I discovered that the true writer of the threat letter had confessed to the HR person, but the HR person had kept it confidential because she was asked to do so by that employee. The employee who had been unofficially and wrongly blamed, had gone through years of, counselling, trauma, conflicts, being held back in her career, etc., and all the while the true writer was watching what happened to her and not coming forward. What should have been HR's obligation in this instance? To reveal, no question.

Corey J Feldman said...

I am not sure how your company is structured, but it is not unusual for the top HR person to report the COO. Nor would it be unusual for an HR person, top or not, to pass on what they felt was a serious complaint to their supervisor. Clearly the COO also felt it was serious enough to pass it on as well. It sounds like you are aware that the email was inappropriate and unprofessional, so if you haven’t already done so, apologize. I have to disagree with the HR Goddess we don’t represent the employee at all, or at least we shouldn’t. We are risk managers and we represent the company. Sometimes we do that by making sure the employees do have a voice, but our purpose is to protect the company, sometimes from itself.

mabel said...

Sounds to me like the author of said email didn't really regret what he/she necessarily wrote until it was revealed that the note went to the COO as well as author's supervisor. I come to the conclusion based on the comments made by the author that what the HR person did was illegal/immoral and pretty much "yes, but" in response to their own horrifying actions.

Suck it up and take it like an adult. Oh, and consider it a lesson learned.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you have an HR person who represents most HR employees - someone who doesn't address and resolve issues properly, but rather passes it along to upper management until someone solves their problem for them. If she had been professional, she would have asked you if you would like to express how you feel in a private meeting between her, yourself and the COO. She would have explained that by doing so, perhaps a mutual solution to this issue could be worked out. I hate how honesty hurts the employee. In almost every scenario it seems that the victim is treated poorly for 'rocking the boat' and the accused is protected. The mentality is such that it's just easier for a company to go along with as few disturbances as possible.

I had to present a mild case of sexual harrassment to the HR lady at my company and now she uses it as a sense of humour when cracking jokes to others ie. a sarcastic "oh by the way, that wasn't harrassment" after she compliments someone.

I've had many jobs in the past 8 years and have yet to meet someone in HR who's heart is in the right place. My apologies to those of you in HR who actually care for the people of an organization. For you, keep up the great work!

Steven said...

In this case the author has already admitted poor judgement was used, but it seems like the HR person also exhibited poor judgement. The job of HR is to identify and solve problems, not create potential new ones on top of existing ones. HR has no obligation to keep anything quiet, but it should first validate anything it receives before acting on it. Poor judgement will doom HR and the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

For EHRL follower, who asked why we (HR types) only want to hear about complaints of other employees when it directly affects your ability to perform your job:

Believe or not, there are some people at work who don't like other people, and will try to get them in trouble by making claims about the other person's work ethic, personal appearance, time of arrival/departure, personal phone calls, etc.

HR can't take the complaint and not investigate, or we aren't doing our job. However, we don't have time to investigate all of these complaints. One way to get to real problems is to insist that the person complaining be able to tell us how it's affecting their ability to get their work done. Otherwise, it's just gossip which doesn't concern you, and I'm not going to spend time on it.

As an HR manager with a staff of 20 of my own, I have to hold this rule to my own staff (!). If they come to me about someone else's inadequacies, I ask them to tell me how it's affecting their ability to get their work done. If they can do it, then I'm going to help. If they can't, I tell them to stop being a busybody, or if they really want to help, to confront the person. Put up, or shut up. A lot of folks shut up. Those that put up, I back them.