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Today a HR representative (G) made a mistake; she left confidential material in the printer, and someone unknown put it on the desk of the person (P) whose name appears on top of the documents. P went to his boss (B) to ask what this is about (the document should not have come forward at this time of the year as it is not due yet). Probably because B has some input on said document, B reported this (that P reported to B) to G immediately. G in turn then rushed to P and demanded to return the documents to G.

Few things to note here:

  • The documents are highly confidential as they contain personal information that less than a handful of people should have access to at all times. Amongst those people is P, so P thought (rightfully IMHO) that the document was placed in his desk for him to read.
  • P's name was on top of the document, and the document is actually "for him" in the sense that P is the one who should read through it. Think of a payslip: It "belongs" to the person whose pay the slip is about, so naturally if you find a payslip with your name on it, you would think that it is "for you". At some point later in the year, P would have gotten this document anyway, its content is indeed in regards to him. It was just not the time yet for him to receive this. It was a preliminary version. Confidential, nevertheless.
  • Multiple copies of the document were printed, however only one copy landed on P's desk. The other copies are now floating around the office.
  • The dress-down of P by G was done in a public area. She yelled at him and threatened to fire him on the spot if he doesn't comply. (He did.) I happened to witness this scenario. IMHO this is unprofessional behaviour in general and in particular unbecoming of an HR representative.
  • This is not the first such incidence. G has a history of using intimidating behaviour (yelling, threatening to fire, messing with employees in general, overstepping her authority, not following procedures).

Questions:

  • Should this be escalated, with the goal to stop this kind of behaviour by G in the future?
  • IMHO, that mistake lead to a confidentiality breach, in particular because we have procedures that outline how to deal with confidential documents, in particular how to print them (secure print etc.). Should that confidentiality breach be addressed, independently of the HR issue?
  • You don't know who printed or distributed the confidential documents so why are you blaming G? – sf02 Oct 31 at 11:56
  • There is a lot of subjectiveness in the way that you describe G. I am guessing that explains at least part of the downvotes. Try to make it more objective and then there is a good answerable question IMHO – user180146 Oct 31 at 12:08
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    You claim confidentiality breach yet you decided to review the printer logs to see if G printed some documents? Is G not allowed to print confidential material? – sf02 Oct 31 at 12:17
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    @sf02 She is, but the documents should not be left in the printer for everyone to see. Also, we have "secure print" facilities where you need to enter a code on the printer to obtain your documents. I.e. you need to be physically at the printer for your documents to come out. Confidential documents are a use case for this facility, and our policies say this is the way to do it. Also, the printer logs are public. They show time, user name, document name, job type (print, scan etc.), # of copies etc. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 12:23
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    Please don't use initials. Use first names. Use fictitious first names, as to maintain people's anonymity. Actual first names are much easier to read and remember than initials. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 1 at 0:17
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P and only P should do the following:

  • File a formal complaint against G for yelling and threatening him over the documents.

  • File a separate formal complaint against G for not following the company's secure print procedures ( which resulted in multiple copies left at the printer unattended ).

  • Talk to the company's security to determine who picked up the copies and distributed them around the company ( in the case of an innocent mistake all copies should have landed on P's desk ) and file a formal complaint against this person if identified.

After that, it is up to the company to handle the matter properly. If they do not satisfactorily handle this situation then P should re-think whether he wants to continue to work for such a company.

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    As adressed in the comments below my answer. I think that OP is allowed to report about the yelling and threathening, since OP was a witness to this. It would e better coming from P ofcourse – user180146 Oct 31 at 14:53
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    The company's head of security should be the one to decide what, if anything, to do about the distribution of the extra copies. I would expect the head of security to ask G some pointed questions about the whole affair. – John R. Strohm Oct 31 at 23:23
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    Accepted answer. I think this is to the point and makes sense. – SayNoToBullying Nov 1 at 10:14
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This is a scenario where there is plenty of blame to go around. So let's consider who did wrong things.

  1. It's obvious that G should have taken more care with a confidential document (assuming that it really was her who did this). You haven't said how sensitive this information is, so it's not possible to gauge how serious a mistake it was. But mistakes happen.
  2. G was absolutely right to demand the return of the documents from P. Just because a confidential document is about you does not mean you get to see it. It's confidential for a reason, and there may have been information, such as colleagues confidential assessment of P, the P has no right to see.
  3. That said, yelling at someone is not acceptable and G behaved badly, not for demanding the document back but for the way they did it.
  4. The real culprit with the most guilt here is the unknown person who distributed the paper around the office. The correct way to behave if you find a confidential document lying about is to return it to its owner without reading it. Making copies to pass round the office is absolutely the worst thing to do. If caught they should be, and probably will be, fired.

So what should happen from here:

  1. P should return any copies of the document they have. So should everyone else who has a copy. If it contained anything they shouldn't have seen at all they are probably best forgetting it. Information that they were going to see, but at a later date, is going to be fair game for discussion.
  2. Yes, there is cause for complaint against G for yelling at an employee, as well as for losing the document. But P, by refusing to return the document, gave G a good excuse for yelling. It's much harder to complain about someone's bad behaviour when your own intransigence is the cause of it. It would be easy for management to dismiss such complaints as an attempt by P to retaliate for whatever they don't like in the document.
  3. Make a serious attempt to find the person who copied and distribute the document and punish them. Make it clear to everyone in the office that confidential documents should not be handled this way.
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    P's name was on top of the document, and the document is actually "for him" in the sense that P is the one who should read through it. Think of a payslip: It "belongs" to the person whose pay the slip is about, so naturally if you find a payslip with your name on it, you would think that it is "for you". At some point later in the year, P would have gotten this document anyway, its content is indeed in regards to him. P also did return the only copy he had, the HR yelling was how the exchange was initiated. It was not a result of P's defiance or resistance. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 14:08
  • Please edit this information into the question, as it will make a difference to the answer. And how does P feel about this information being given to everyone in the office? And if it was intended for P, then why was P upset about it? – DJClayworth Oct 31 at 14:09
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    I agree that the correct course of action when you find a confidential document is to return it to who you think it belongs. But I give the person whoever did this in this case the benefit of doubt and assume he/she actually did exactly that: P's name was on the document, so that person probably assumed P himself printed it out and forgot it in the printer tray, so he/she put it on P's desk. Whether that person made copies for him/herself, I don't know. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 14:12
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    Also, I think it would be rather futile to find that person. "Has anyone taken confidential documents from printer XYZ and placed it on P's desk?" I don't think anyone will raise their hands. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 14:12
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    You wrote "only one copy landed on P's desk. The other copies are now floating around the office." Presumably somebody distributed them, and it wasn't P, so whoever it was doesn't deserve "the benefit of the doubt". – DJClayworth Oct 31 at 14:19
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After the edit I think an answer is possible. Assuming your description is accurate (G is the one who printed the documents) My answer would be:

Should this be escalated, with the goal to stop this kind of behaviour by G in the future?

Yes it should be escalated. But IMHO following the normal procedures. So whoever you would normally report such a thing to. Also it is primarily P's task/right to escalate this. So make sure to check with P.

IMHO, that mistake lead to a confidentiality breach, in particular because we have procedures that outline how to deal with confidential documents, in particular how to print them (secure print etc.). Should that confidentiality breach be addressed, independently of the HR issue?

Depending on how confidential and sensitive they really are (the printed documents) yes this is a separate issue and should be reported seperately. But again I think that this is primarily P or B's task/right to report. So do check with them first again before you do anything.

In general you describe that it is not the first time this has happened (your first question) however if you or P have never reported anything like this about G I think it is important for you to treat it like a first time and report it like a first time. If it turns out not to be the first time then whoever deals with the complaint will know about that.

  • the OP might report the facts on his own account if these impact his own situation : - having a HR representative publicly yelling at a coworker might seriously impact morale ; - the possibility of having one's own confidential HR information disclosed has to be handled. – Frederi ROSE Oct 31 at 13:07
  • Thanks. I won't report this myself, although I'm tempted to. As mentioned in my question, B already escalated this with G, which lead to the disaster afterwards. So any escalation would need to bypass B, as I feel that P cannot expect help from B. The documents were, bar payslips, pretty much the most confidential documents a company could produce about an employee. Can't tell exactly what documents here, for obvious reasons. But yeah, very much confidential. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 13:08
  • @FrederiROSE, the problem as far as I can see is that P won't be able to handle this correctly (reasons withheld), which would send a signal to G that what happened is ok. Also, since I witnessed the situation and I believe that this behaviour constitutes bullying, I might actually be obligated to report this. Lastly, it very much does affect every one in the office who gets to know about this: A bullying HR does affect how employees feel about their safety should HR involvement be necessary for any problem that may arise in the future. – SayNoToBullying Oct 31 at 13:11
  • @SayNoToBullying, What I mean is that I think these complaints would be stronger when they come from those directly involved. Therefore I think P and possibly B should be consulted first. You are ofcourse allowed to report anything you directly witnessed. – user180146 Oct 31 at 13:21
  • if you share B as a boss with P and this proved desastrous, you should escalate this to your N+2, explaining why this story affects your work : as I said morale because 1. yelling ; 2. risk of having your personal info displayed. – Frederi ROSE Oct 31 at 13:23

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