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I sent an email exclusively to my HR manager with the subject 'P&C' from my personal email address and after attending a self funded counselling session. The email was about my very personal feelings, about becoming depressed and my state of mind, this was all due to being bullied at work by my director and also was after I had been diagnosed with work related stress by my GP that they were informed of 4 months earlier.

I stated I was venting (as advised by my counsellor) & was not allocating blame to anyone nor did I want anything done. However this HR manager instructed me that I attend a meeting to discuss, unknown to me my new line manager was also present & where my email was read out aloud verbatim without asking my permission, this was much to my mortification and I then became very upset.

I also found out she had forwarded it to our head office HR department; my question is do these things constitute a breach of confidentiality by my employer to my employment contract in terms of implied duty of mutual trust and confidence between the employer and employee?

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  • 3
    Sorry, but we can't give you legal advice; you need an actual lawyer for that. Nov 12 '20 at 13:40
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    While I agree with @PhilipKendall, I think the question can be salvaged into answerable one, but first we need to know some things from you OP: what country are you in, and what do you hope as end result? Nov 12 '20 at 13:41
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    Sadly, HR is not your friend Nov 12 '20 at 13:51
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    Consult a lawyer on whether it's a breach of contract. However, you were talking with HR, who felt like the best thing to do was address your concerns with your managers. This seems like the correct action. Remember, HR is not your counsellor (but maybe ditch yours - terrible advice to confide in HR).
    – MineR
    Nov 12 '20 at 13:57
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    Did your counselor specifically state you should vent to your employer? (specifically, not just in general to anyone) Because that's an all-round bad idea, liable to cause you more work stress rather than less, and I'm highly skeptical of a counselor suggesting such an idea. This is, at best, woefully naive about corporate culture, and at worst not acting in your best interest (or that of your mental state).
    – Flater
    Nov 12 '20 at 14:04
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As all other answers have explained, the whole thing was a terrible idea, and HR is actually doing their role.

I'll answer an unspoken question

What to do now?

At least it's brought things to a head. No point being scared of bullies now, brazen it out and let the dice fall where they may. May have some therapeutic value if nothing else.

You've been forced to make a stand, so stand and back yourself. Lawyers are an expensive and pointless option in my opinion. Showing courage in adversity isn't. It may not benefit you except mentally, but it may make others take note of their own shortcomings.

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    Good points, thanks for your perspective Nov 12 '20 at 15:05
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Whoops! HR is not your priest or your lawyer. The things you tell them aren't confidential. There's no "HR oath". They do handle your personal data and so they do have to keep some secrets, but that doesn't apply to your complaints.

They're doing pretty much what I'd expect, trying to solve the problem you gave them. As people often point out, their job is to act in the company's best interest, not yours. But in this case, they probably believe this is what you want as well. You did after all send them the email. And now you're getting upset about them acting on your complaint. I hope you see the inconsistency there.

If you're wondering "what should I do now", there's not enough information here to say. But I can give you generic future advice, which is not to "vent" to people who have power over your life. This could have gone worse and it could still get worse. It's not a very strategic play to write an email purely for the experience of writing it, without any regard to what it means for the person reading it. When I want to vent, I also write a very grumpy email. But then I delete it. That way it stays confidential.

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    And try and get your money back from the counsellor, it's the worst advice I've ever heard
    – Kilisi
    Nov 12 '20 at 13:54
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    Maybe the counsellor meant for OP to write the email but never actually send it?
    – Llewellyn
    Nov 12 '20 at 18:44
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I stated I was venting (as advised by my counsellor)

If your counsellor actually advised you to vent to HR you should fire them on the spot. This serisouly bad advice. It can't possibly help and its potentially dangerous to your career.

However this HR manager instructed me that I attend a meeting to discuss

What did you expect would happen? You bring a problem to HR. In writing. That opens up a potential legal liability to the company if it's not properly handled. They really have no choice but to follow up in some form or shape, so they can document that they didn't ignore in case things go sideways.

nor did I want anything done.

Then why on earth did you sent this e-mail? What did you want to happen? If you need a sympathetic ear that's what your therapist or councellor get paid for. Friends, family, random strangers in a bar are also good choices for venting. Anybody at work is NOT. Especially not HR: their job is to make sure the company is in full compliance with all laws and regulations and to premptively avoid any type of legal exposure risk. They are NOT "make the employees feel good" department.

do these things constitute a breach of confidentiality

No. It was handled wihin HR and in your chain of command.

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Once again....... HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND First off, putting "Personal and confidential" alone on a letter does not make it so.

What you did by involving HR was..... involving HR. You presented them with a case and they are now investigating. HR is not the police. HR is not your Rabbi/Imam/Priest. HR is not your psychiatrist or psychologist, and HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

Now, you may see a lawyer, but I doubt he'll find anything actionable yet, and may not at all, depending on what was in the letter and what was disclosed.

If you were simply venting, then.... in my experience, it will probably not work out well for you. You will want to update your resume, because your future in this company is now on shaky ground.

Companies don't want to deal with someone who is troublesome, and you brought trouble to their front door. If your venting suggests any sort of mental instability, then HR may be required to report it if they think you pose a risk of workplace violence. Due to the wording, it's a position that is very easy to defend, and they will.

See a lawyer and see if you can do some damage control. Then update your resume, and never do anything like this again.

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    HR - 'hardly relevant' ;)
    – iLuvLogix
    Nov 12 '20 at 14:26
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    don't see a lawyer recommended by your counsellor though
    – Kilisi
    Nov 12 '20 at 14:26
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    @Kilisi The cousellor would send him to his companies legal department ;) I would sew the counsellor for dmgs instead..
    – iLuvLogix
    Nov 12 '20 at 14:27
  • I would go with this suggestion
    – Strader
    Nov 12 '20 at 15:37
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Your company is not at fault here. They are actually responding in a reasonable manner. However, you have been given bad advice by your counselor, which caused you to trigger your company's response. If this is not what you wanted, then you shouldn't have done what you did.

she had forwarded it to our head office HR department; my question is do these things constitute a breach of confidentiality by my employer

Your HR manager forwarding something to the same company's HR department is not unusual, nor any violation. They are one department, regardless of whether they're split over several offices or not.

unknown to me my new line manager was also present & where my email was read out aloud verbatim without asking my permission

While discretion may be desirable in certain personal situations, I can't judge this since I don't know the exact content of the email.

Your line manager is one of the most relevant people to include here, as they are expected to be acutely aware of your work, performance, and any obstacles you face in the workplace. Your current predicament very much falls under their responsibility.

However this HR manager instructed me that I attend a meeting to discuss

Let's say they don't plan a meeting. HR received a written complaint by you, and they did not follow up.

Supposing something happens in the future, e.g. you sue the company for workplace bullying, the fact that they did not act on your (earlier) complaint of bullying will have a tremendous impact on the company's position in this law suit, and the HR employee themselves will also face repercussions from the company by opening them up to this liability.

On top of that, there's the human element. Even if not done to cover their legal ass, your company might be pro-active in hunting down workplace bullying in an attempt to nip it in the bud before it causes even more damage to employees.

Either of these are very good argument that justify and/or effectively force the company's hand in investigating this complaint.

nor did I want anything done

What was the purpose of the email then? The HR employee who read it wasn't involved in the situation, and is being asked to not do anything with this information. So why involve them at all?

It makes no sense for this email to be sent if not to urge HR to action. Therefore, it's reasonable for HR to take action because of this email.

was not allocating blame to anyone

The email was about my very personal feelings, about becoming depressed and my state of mind, this was all due to being bullied at work by my director and

The two bolded parts very much contradict one another.

You accused another employee of untoward behavior, furthermore explaining the mental stress it causes you and how this is continuing evidence to a diagnosis of work-related stress that dates back at least 4 months ago.

If you indicate that a particular person is causing a problem of this magnitude, then you are very much accusing them and laying blame on them for being (part of) the problem.

I stated I was venting (as advised by my counsellor)

There are two options here: you misunderstood your counselor, or your counselor did in fact tell you to vent to your employer. Did your counselor explicitly tell you to vent to your employer? Or did they tell you to vent in general, and you decided that your employer should be one of the recipients of this venting?

If your counselor explicitly told you to do this, fire your counselor. They didn't just give you bad advice, but advice that harms your career and increases/perpetuates your psychological struggles.

At best, your counselor is woefully naive. At worst, they are negligently causing harm to you by giving you the wrong advice. In either case, the counselor is not the right counselor for you.

If your counselor told you to vent, but you yourself decided to vent to your employer, then no one is to blame for your current predicament, other than yourself. Everyone in your story is behaving the way they're supposed to. You just happened to do something without knowing the consequences, based on a bad call.

If this is the case, the best you can do is communicate this to the company, explain how you regret sending the email, and explicitly state what your intentions and expectations were. Apologize for the inconvenience you caused, and ask if it is possible for the company to cease their investigation into this issue.

It's possible that it cannot be stopped, if the company has chosen for themselves to investigate a potentially troublesome element (i.e. your line director). After all, if they bully you, it's likely that they're bullying others as well.

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