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Confidential Meetings 101

Confidential Meetings 101

Your company’s human resources department deals with a lot of issues that should be kept confidential. Staff salaries and payroll are typically overseen by HR, as well as health insurance. Disciplinary actions are also managed by your human resources department.

Making a Complaint

Employees should be able to file a complaint with human resources in a private setting. If, for instance, a staff member is being sexually harassed by another employee, he or she needs to be able to make a complaint in a confidential environment. While a private office with a closed door is helpful, many modern offices are designed with glass office surrounds, glass wall conference rooms, and grouped cubicle areas. This is aesthetically appealing and makes the space feel larger, but is not conducive to the best human resource practices. Having smart window tint on office and/or conference room glass is extremely helpful in curtailing views from curious eyes and limiting discussion regarding confidential meetings.

However, it is important to keep in mind that your human resources department may be legally required to take action on what is shared with them. While there are situations in which HR can be approached as a sounding board or to obtain guidance on how to navigate a situation, any scenario which involves the potential breaking of law will necessitate company action. Outside of those parameters, your human resources representatives should be very clear with employees regarding what they will or will not share from any meeting.

Your human resources department is not like your attorney. Your attorney’s job is to protect your best interests. Your human resources department exists to protect the company’s best interests. Ensuring that all employees are treated fairly is vital to the company’s best interests, but confidentiality in that process is not always guaranteed. Your HR representative may be sympathetic to your situation, but at the end of the day, their priority is to serve the company’s needs.

HR manager listens to an employee

Human Resource Investigations

Some human resources departments will investigate any and all complaints. Others may choose to pursue only those which could negatively affect the business. They will also investigate any issues that involve harassment, discrimination, retaliation, safety, and a few other types of complaints that are required by employment law to be examined. Before a confidential meeting is scheduled, your HR department will decide which specific claims will be investigated and by whom. They will also determine what sort of evidence needs to be collected and which employees will be interviewed.

Conducting investigations in the workplace is one of the most difficult procedures undertaken by the Human Resource department. Employment laws change frequently and management training may not cover these changes in a timely manner. Because employees are more aware of their rights than ever before, the potential for incidents to result in costly litigation has increased. Investigations into incidents of concern need to be undertaken with the utmost care and confidentiality.

Lorene Schaefer, an attorney who works as a mediator, workplace investigator, and expert witness in employee-employer relations cases, states that the location where interviews are conducted can affect the outcome of an investigation[1]. Schaefer recommends that human resource management avoid conducting interviews with staff in full view of co-workers. “Employees are less likely to share information under such circumstances,” Schaefer states, and going forward, staff members “will likely be reluctant to come forward to report any misconduct in the future.”

The use of smart window tint for individual offices as well as conference rooms provides a tremendous advantage for a human resources department. Management and investigators are able to transition from transparent to opaque glass in an instant, ensuring privacy. Employees feel more comfortable sharing information without the eyes of their coworkers upon them and investigators are more likely to obtain the details they need to conduct a thorough examination of the incident or issue in question.

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Considerations

When addressing employee complaints, there are multiple aspects of any situation that Human Resources must take into account:

  • What is best for the employer
  • What is best for the employee
  • What is legal or required by the government
  • What precedent is set for the fair treatment of employees
  • What decision could result in legal ramifications for the company

A breach in confidentiality can result in repercussions affecting staff and/or the company itself. There are several standard security measures that are typically undertaken to maintain confidentiality in a business. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Comprehensive confidentiality procedures training process for new HR staff
  • Ongoing confidentiality education for all HR staff
  • Non-disclosure agreements for employees, contractors, and vendors

Documentation of Confidential Meetings and Investigations

Human Resources should document all investigations in a written report. It is key to document how the complaint was substantiated or not. If termination was the result, the factors leading to termination should be noted. If the company terminates an employee and that person later files a retaliation complaint with the EEOC, these case notes and witness statements will help to protect the company in court.

Even after a written report is submitted, HR must take additional steps to bring the investigation to a close. The findings of an investigation are submitted to a decision maker such as a higher-level HR professional. This staff member should be knowledgeable regarding current laws and how similar situations have been handled by the company in the past. Disciplinary actions are not generally decided upon by the investigator, but by a high-level HR professional or company management. The staff member who made the complaint should be notified that action regarding the report was taken. The company is not required to share the details of the action and many times is legally prohibited from doing so. Human Resources should be certain to remind staff members and management that retaliation will not be tolerated and be vigilant in ensuring this does not occur.

A successful Human Resources department will make a habit of analyzing each investigation for patterns in complaints. These could indicate that more training is needed to avoid similar incidents going forward. HR should also make a point to review an investigation after conclusion to determine if any improvement can be made in the process for future investigations.

By ensuring a thorough and fair investigative process, a company’s Human Resources department can raise staff morale and earn the trust of their employees. Each workplace scenario will be unique, but by employing a consistent, well-designed process in investigating each incident, trust in the company’s leadership can be built. While there is no guarantee that all employees will be pleased with the outcome of an investigation, by being sure to conduct investigations in this thorough and respectful manner, staff can feel that their concerns have been heard.

[1] https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/Pages/1214-workplace-investigations.aspx