Running Your Business

Employee Privacy When Your Employee Needs Help


  • Human resources maintains records of employee salaries, performance appraisals, health insurance applications and disciplinary actions

  • Awkward and uncomfortable conversations aren't easy ones to have, but they all benefit the company and the employee

  • Engage in the interactive processes required by law and give staff the time off that they need

Posted by March 4, 2019

Human resources is all about employee privacy. We keep information on salaries, performance appraisals, health insurance applications and disciplinary actions. We don’t gossip, and we only share when it’s necessary. We tell employees repeatedly that we’re not counselors, priests or lawyers, so please don’t tell us about your marriage, your sins or your legal issues. But what if we know someone needs help in that area? Then what?

Let’s say Jane has taken multiple sick days in the past month. Do you reach out to her and ask what’s up, when it’s none of your business? But what if her problem is migraines, a condition which can be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Or what if she was hospitalized overnight, which can trigger FMLA eligibility? You’d be doing Jane a favor by talking to her.

And what if Jane isn’t sick, but you’ve heard rumors that she’s going through a nasty divorce? You know your employee assistance program (EAP) has great rates on attorneys and counselors, but you don’t know if Jane has either lined up and if she’d be offended if you asked.

Or let’s say Jane has just had what appears to be a personality switch. She used to be a pleasant person but now she’s a terror. You could just place her on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and kick her out the door if she doesn’t shape up, but she’s always been a good performer, and this is a stark change. Maybe a doctor’s visit would help things?

None of these conversations are easy ones to have, but they all benefit the company and the employee. In the cases where an employee’s condition would be eligible for FMLA, and you know it, you could open the company to liability if you don’t offer it. So, here’s how to go about it.

Have a Formal Meeting

Don’t stop Jane in the hallway and say, “Hey, here’s some info on getting help with your divorce!” It puts Jane in an awkward position, especially if she’s desperately trying to keep things hush-hush. If you have a good relationship with Jane, invite her into your office for the meeting. If you don’t, you can suggest to her manager that she meet with Jane and follow up if it doesn’t happen. If the conversation is about “here’s the phone number for the EAP,” then it’s fine for the manager to do it on her own. If, however, you want to bring up ADA or FMLA, it’s best that an HR expert is in the meeting. These are complicated programs, and you don’t want a manager to make promises the company can’t keep—or not explain something that is legally required.

Don’t Try to Solve the Problem Yourself

You’re not a therapist or doctor, so don’t try to offer advice other than, “Here’s the paperwork for ADA. Speak to your physician about it, and we’ll make sure we get everything going on our end.” Do not try to solve financial problems, no matter how tempting it might be to say, “You know you probably wouldn’t have trouble meeting your mortgage payment if you weren’t buying new shoes every day.” Just direct Jane to the EAP, which can help her.

Don’t Gossip

Gossip is such a temptation. We’re all tempted by it. Keep your mouth shut. If others come to you and say, “Jane is a disaster,” don’t give in to the urge to say, “Oh my word, I know! Can you believe this divorce!”. Instead, say, “Thanks, but I don’t discuss employee problems with anyone but the employee herself.”

Follow the Law

If Jane’s condition qualifies for legal coverage, don’t fight it. Engage in the interactive processes required by law. Give her the time off she needs. Everyone benefits when employees get the support they need to make it through the tough times.


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