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I've been in a fairly new intimate relationship with someone for the past 2-3 months. I found out recently that she has a friend who works in my HR department. I found this out when she told me that her friend had been processing my salary/bonus and had told her about it. To be clear, figures more than just 'good' or 'bad' news.

Am I wrong to be slightly outraged about this? Doesn't HR have at least some professional responsibility to keep my compensation confidential?

My first priority is I don't want it to ever happen again. I'd like her to be disciplined to some extent but I'm not sure exactly how serious this is for her to do. I don't want her fired. Which is why I don't want to just go and tell her boss.

Update: I now understand this is a huge issue and could be grounds for firing. I do not wish to go that far as I assume she thought that as I was in a relationship with this person, it was okay. While it was obviously not okay, I do not think she deserves to be fired for it.

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    Who is "she" who knows the numbers, the HR person or the spouse? It's not clear what exactly was disclosed. This is rather important. Once you said it's a relationship, and once a friendship. Usually relationship is used for even more intimate relation. Disclosing an event of bonus being awarded to a spouse is something different than discussing exact salaries with a friend/acquaintance. Though perhaps ideally neither should happen. – luk32 May 8 '18 at 10:31
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    Where are you located? – AllTheKingsHorses May 8 '18 at 10:31
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    It would be helpful to specify the country. There are cultures where sharing such information is no big deal, and people openly discuss their salaries with each other. I assume this is not such a place, but let's not limit ourselves to assumptions. – Val May 8 '18 at 16:21
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    I cleaned up a lot of comments here which should be in The Workplace Chat and not as comments. For some reason people seem to think this is a good question to troll, too, which is unsurprisingly not tolerated. – enderland May 8 '18 at 19:24
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    I think a region tag would be helpful. While I believe most western countries have the same view on this topic, specific laws/punishments do vary from country to country. – thanby May 9 '18 at 14:36
207

If you want "something" to be done but don't want to escalate, then you can ask the HR person directly about the incident.

I just learned that my salary details were disclosed outside the company. I would prefer not to have my confidential details disclosed to unauthorized parties. What was the reason this happened?

She will likely respond with an apology, and you can then move on. You have made your displeasure clear politely and firmly, and received an apology, which is enough of "something" in my opinion. If she doesn't apologize and instead tries to defend herself, you can decide if you want to push the case further up or not.

Be aware that she might choose to tell your "friend" about this conversation, and be prepared for dealing with her ("friend"'s) reaction.

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    Perfect answer; I would just elaborate, making it clear to the HR person that you don't want her to get in trouble for it and as such don't intend to report it, but that you would like her to understand that it's not her place to divulge that information to anyone other than you or other officially authorized personnel, regardless of their relationship with you. – Doktor J May 14 '18 at 13:57
170

Maybe you can tell your GF that this is a dangerous breach of ethics that her friend could be fired for, and ask her to talk to her friend privately about how serious it could be. Maybe get her to introduce you so you can explain it yourself. Point out that you're handling it privately to keep her from getting into deep trouble, but the next person might not be so sympathetic. Problem solved, little conflict, minimal fallout.

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    Yeah I am inclined to agree with this. Help your partner's friend avoid termination but make sure it's clear that it isn't that his or her friend could be fired but rather should be fired for his or her actions – ford prefect May 8 '18 at 17:14
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    If the OP is not inclined to report it, this is the best option. The person needs to be aware that every time she gossips about work details to anyone including her spouse and children, she is risking losing not only her job but her profession. No one would hire an HR person after being fired for disclosing private information. – HLGEM May 8 '18 at 17:54
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    +1. This is kind of a good opportunity to gauge how your new friend thinks about loyalty, duties, and obligation. – CCTO May 8 '18 at 19:03
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    Torn between your approach and gnasher's. You suggest avoiding the conflict, but that also means dismissing what might prove to be a pattern of bad behavior, involving more people. What of their rights? OP might already be the next person. – DonBoitnott May 9 '18 at 17:43
  • My answer might have been different if this was an established pattern, but I interpreted this as a first offense. If we're going to have a zero tolerance policy for HR personnel, the problem will be solved by tomorrow when everyone in HR has been fired. – Cristobol Polychronopolis May 23 '18 at 20:16
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That behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. It is totally unprofessional, it should have never happened, and nobody working in HR should ever even consider telling your salary and bonus to a third party.

Put in a formal complaint to HR and insist that this is investigated, and that appropriate action is taken. If you worry that this gets her into trouble, any trouble is entirely self inflicted and entirely deserved.

Consider that you are probably not the only victim. You are not only protecting yourself, you are protecting all the employees in your company.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S May 10 '18 at 0:11
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    "nobody working in HR should ever even consider telling your salary and bonus to a third party" Then it's a good thing that publicly traded companies aren't required to publish salary information, and pay transparency is impossible... oh wait. Actually, salaries are not protected information and disseminating them is not illegal or automatically unethical. The HR person can get in trouble if there's a company policy against it, but there might not be. – Ben Voigt May 10 '18 at 5:24
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    @BenVoigt Anyone in such a public position of power in a publically traded company no doubt explicitly gives right for their compensation to be published as a matter of requirement for the post. There are no surprises here. Most employees, however, in most workplaces should very much expect that their compensation details are most confidential. – J... May 11 '18 at 11:47
  • @J...: No, they shouldn't blindly expect it. They should find out what the company's policy concerning disclosure of salary and benefits information is. (Pay transparency, which I linked in my previous comment, does not apply only to those for whom the disclosure is demanded by regulation) – Ben Voigt May 13 '18 at 16:50
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    @BenVoigt At the same time, even in that case, it's not a surprise - anywhere with pay transparency is going to take pains to make sure it is abundantly clear to people, at the time of hiring, that their salary information will be shared because the default expectation is very much that this is normally extremely confidential information. – J... May 13 '18 at 17:42
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To make this clear, the HR person's actions are the equivalent of an accountant committing fraud or a doctor writing fake prescriptions. This is behavior that is disqualifying for the profession she is in. The single most critical characteristic required of an HR person is the ability to keep information confidential. She has failed that and deserves to not only be fired but to never work in the field again.

If she passes this info on, she could pass on info about upcoming layoffs or the sale of the company which could result in insider trading which is a crime. She could pass on information about someone's disciplinary actions. She has disqualified herself from her profession for life. She needs to be fired.

However, for your own sake, wait until the bonus has been paid to bring it up. It may turn out that what was reported to you was not true and then you look like you are the problem. Plus if the bonus amount matches what you were told, then it is more proof that she did pass the info on. Document and date something with the conversation about what your partner told you was the amount your were getting. Also discuss this with your partner before you turn her in (and after the bonus), so there are no surprises there. Only you can decide if this relationship is worth it and, who knows, your partner may be just as appalled.

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    Not really, you over state the crime. Fraudulent behavior would have to involve financial gain. Its not fraud if a professional (MD, Attorney or Accountant, Psychiatrist or Priest) discloses private information to a third-party without prior agreement, that is a breach of trust. Depending on the jurisdiction, Data Protection law may apply. The fines can be significant. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Jodrell May 8 '18 at 14:16
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    If you are privy to confidential info and you use that info to buy stock knowing the price will shortly be going up or provide that info to others knowing the price will go up (Or so they can sell if the price will clearly be going down) that is insurer trading and in the US it is illegal. HR professionals often have that kind of info, that is why not being discreet is a disqualifying from the profession action. I did not say she currently committed fraud. Just that she is too risky to keep on in a position of trust. – HLGEM May 8 '18 at 14:53
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    @Jodrell Semantics aside, the point is sound. An HR employee's job function is literally to handle employee issues with discretion. This person failed at the primary function of their job. They should not work in HR. – ach May 8 '18 at 17:35
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    @Jodrell He didn't say that what she did is fraud, but that it is equivalent to an accountant committing fraud. For an accountant committing fraud is the gravest ethical work violation I can think of - same applies for an HR person divulging private information. – Voo May 9 '18 at 9:39
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    @Voo I disagree that the gravest ethical violation of an HR professional would be to disclose private information. Its unprofessional, and plain wrong but, not as bad as engineering the dismissal of the pregnant or the potentially pregnant. An HR officers role is to ensure the company has the best person doing the job, and that company policy is applied consistently, regardless of bias. If a Data Protection officer disclosed private information, I'd agree. However, this is "splitting hairs." – Jodrell May 9 '18 at 9:55
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I now understand this is a huge issue and could be grounds for firing. I do not wish to go that far as I assume she thought I was in a relationship with this person she told.

If you're not willing to report her by name, then consider making a de-identified report to somebody in her line of management:

"Hi, I've recently become aware of an incident where an HR staffer disclosed somebody's confidential salary information to that person's partner without permission. I don't think there was any malicious intent and I would prefer not to disclose the specifics because I don't want to get somebody fired. But I'm very concerned that this happened. Could you please make sure that staff are aware of their obligations and the possible consequences of breaching confidentiality?"

I understand that you don't want to harm anybody, and her friendship with your girlfriend complicates things. But either she's reckless and unprofessional, or HR isn't adequately training staff in the fundamentals of their job. Either way, somebody is going to get hurt sooner or later, unless the issue is addressed, and that's not going to happen unless they know there's an issue to address.

4

As Gnasher says, it's not just about you. What about everyone else? The right thing in this case is to report it.

Of course, the right thing to do might not be the right thing for you. It's going to affect your relationship with your girlfriend and it could turn the entire HR department against you. Those people will absolutely take revenge on you if they can get away with it.

The right thing might make your life harder. Does it bother you enough to risk blowback?

3

Though (as already answered by others), reporting it is the most straightforward (and correct option), there are fallouts of this option that you should be prepared to deal with.
First, you will most likely be asked to prove that this confidentiality breach happened: the what, how & when of it. This will drag your partner (I use this word for want of a better word) into the dispute and she may be required to testify. Is this practical in your situation? Alternatively (or additionally), you may be asked to produce documentary evidence. Do you have it?
Secondly, if the salary hike/bonus that was getting processed is not yet revealed to you, you may first be questioned on how/why you got these confidential details before they were due to be released to you. If you try to argue that you did not actively/voluntarily seek those details, you may still be questioned on why you did not refuse to hear them, and worse, why you made a record of these details. Are you ready to deal with this?
Confronting the HR person who perpetrated this also has the risk of them turning around and accusing you (and/or your partner) of false accusation and denying occurrence of such a discussion. What next?
There may be more such fallouts. Is it worth fighting this battle? Does that mean you just leave it at that (all the while smarting with the feeling of being wronged)? Perhaps not.
You should pursue a course of action which does not put any responsibility to prove on your part but also passes the message intended back to the source. One such option is provided by Cristobol Polychronopolis's answer.

3

While I understand your desire to not get the HR person in trouble, that should be left to their manager. What if this is not the first instance that has been reported for this particular employee? Only their manager would have that kind of info and be able to make an informed decision.

When I report things like this, I try to remove emotion as much as possible and stick to the facts. I don't try to tell them how to do their job, e.g. "That person should be fired." or "Don't fire the person." That decision is up to them. They are aware of the training that person received, the seriousness of the offense, and the employee's history.

Report how you found out, what information they disclosed and to whom, and so on. After that, it's up to HR.

0

Telling outsiders someone's salary seems unprofessional to illegal, unless there's some company-wide policy that all salaries are public (assuming that's legal etc.). Of course, in some places, you could be able to find someone's salary from their tax records, if they happen to be public. But that's not exactly the same as directly disclosing information the HR person knows from their job.

The situation seems like you have grounds for a complaint to HR (the gossiping person's manager). But, I can see another issue here: the relationships between you, your new intimate relationship, and their gossiping friend. Depending on how close they are, your new lady friend might not like it much if you get their friend fired.

If you care about that significantly, you may want to try to approach the matter privately at first. If you don't mind possibly losing a lady friend who would approve of such a breach of confidentiality, then by all means go ahead and make a formal complaint.

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    Mostly unrelated anecdote: Many towns and governments have a statutory obligation to make their employees salaries public. – Adonalsium May 8 '18 at 15:00
  • @TomTom, I believe I did mention that there are two possible viewpoints to that. I'm not forcing you or anyone to choose one or the other. – ilkkachu May 8 '18 at 15:25
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    @TomTom She got told something, that's it. you're suggesting making a mountain out of a molehill for that part of things at least. – Sam May 8 '18 at 15:28

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