I am a Pakistani citizen working in a company located in the UAE. When the company provided me a visa they kept my passport. Now I want to apply for a study visa and to go for an interview I need a passport. I don't want to lose my job in this pandemic situation and the student visa interview does not guarantee a position so I need some advice on how to handle this carefully. Edit: I simply asked and the employer hasn't created any issue in giving my passport back. Thanks All for suggestions
As a general answer to this question, since OP's problem has already been solved:
1 - First, assume good intention
I'd hardly believe someone is keeping your passport from you deliberately. But maybe, it was left on a locked drawer whose owner is now working from home, and maybe even moved away from the city so it's hard for him to simply give it back to you, hence he/she might simply not touch the subject until you do. Most likely, someone simply forgot they had your document.
If this is the case, nothing to worry about, any decent employee would ask you no questions as to why you want your passport back.
2 - Second, assume soft and mostly passive misconduct
Maybe they think you have no need for a passport, since you shouldn't be travelling nor applying for jobs/studies elsewhere. Heck what do they lose by keeping your passport for them while they can?
While I see some petty people thinking like this, they know they'd be crossing some serious lines by actually denying your passport. So they might (unrightfully) ask "why do you need your passport?" (the home-office worker away from town might also ask this, but he/she just justify the question and explain the situation before asking).
I suggest three options for your answer:
"Because it's mine, why else?"
"I need the passport to open a bank account in the US, I want to trade some stocks there, have you heard about XXX company?"
"I will totally forget this later, and I'm afraid this may be an issue in the future"
Any reasonable person should not argue with either of those responses. but then...
3 - Identify willful misconduct
If someone on HR is keeping your passport hostage, either to prevent you from doing something or due to some big laziness (see home office worker example), then this is willful misconduct. No company, anywhere in the world has the right to retain your passport.
If the problem was not solved by step 2, then act more seriously. If your company had a compliance program (which should be segregated from the management team) you should have channels to file a complain if you hold enough proof. Weight this against the next suggestion.
Personally, I would message the HR's person's boss with something like "Hey Joe/Jane, how've you been? Have you heard news about (HR person)? Is everything okay with him/her?". As the conversation proceeds (maybe the person is on vacation, or the hospital or whatever, but otherwise), you bring the passport issue "well, I've asked him/her about my passport and when and how should I retrieve it, we've talked, he/she asked why I needed it but the conversation stopped there".
For any decent manager, this is a loud and clear message that you think the HR person screwed up, but you just want your problem solved. And solved it should be by now. HR should tell you how to get your passport back, probably without you even asking. If not, just contact HR again asking for your passport and possibly ask the manager if the talk with the HR person has already taken place.
4 - Pick your fights
Now, we've reached the point where you can't really be casual and discreet about it. If the risk you take by exposing yourself is not worth the opportunity you'll be missing, then this might be the place to give up.
But, there are a few options you can still consider that may have different social costs depending on the customs of your country. One approach is: email HR person, with his/her boss copied, maybe even someone higher up, and list the dates of all conversations related to the topic. No need to detail what went on in each talk, simply say the subject of your passport being in company's possession has been addressed in all this opportunities and you just want it back. Some people might get offended by the attitude, but they've earned this at that point. Just make sure you are not in a rush (the earliest date should be at least two weeks prior to this e-mail).
Next, you might raise the fact that you suspect the company has lost your passport. Once you've cracked a reason such as this, people normally give up keeping it secret. Then demand that the company pays the cost of re-emitting it. Tell them you have no option now or later than to register a with the police that the passport is missing, and that claiming to have lost it might de considered defrauding on your part (or some local equivalent, but do check if the laws work like this where you live). This gives a very good reason for them to return your passport without asking questions as to why you want it back.
Finally, if even that fails, find a lawyer and get advice. You might get a court order to have the company forced to return your passport or explain in concrete terms what happened to it. Depending on local laws, there might be some short term immunity against retaliation that would prevent you from being fired (if you want to keep the job), or you can litigate for damages incurred by your lost opportunities (if you are okay with leaving and having a not-so-easy time getting your next job).