California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Confidentiality in Sexual Harassment Investigations

This Business Week article about the human resources so-called confidentiality guideline known as the "Need to Know" standard raises a great point many companies could benefit from. The main topic of the article is how HR professionals may inadvertently (or no so inadvertently) disclose information that they said they would only disclose to people who “need to know.”

However, from a legal perspective, and my mantra during sexual harassment prevention training, is that when an employee complains that they or a co-worker is “uncomfortable” with another employee’s behavior or may be a victim of harassment, the HR professional (or supervisor) cannot and should not promise absolute confidentiality. A company has a duty to investigate any potential harassment, and this duty usually falls upon the HR manager. A proper investigation requires speaking to the victim, witnesses, and usually the alleged harasser as well. This probably also requires the disclosure of information reported to the company by the alleged victim. This is not to say that the company can and should not closely guard the facts of the allegation, but promising confidentiality up front can put the company and HR professional in an awkward position because absolute confidentiality cannot always be maintained.
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