Fri., October 18, 2013 7:50am (EDT)

WORKING: Keep This To Yourself
By Joshua Stewart
Updated: 9 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
The human resources office at work walks a fine line between advocating for employees and protecting the interests of the organization. Workplace consultant Brandon Smith says HR’s first duty is to the company, which means there are some things you don’t want to talk those folks about. (Photo Courtesy of Muriel Miralles de Sawicki via stock.xchng.)
The human resources office at work walks a fine line between advocating for employees and protecting the interests of the organization. Workplace consultant Brandon Smith says HR’s first duty is to the company, which means there are some things you don’t want to talk those folks about. (Photo Courtesy of Muriel Miralles de Sawicki via stock.xchng.)
The human resources office at work walks a fine line between advocating for employees and protecting the interests of the organization.

Workplace consultant Brandon Smith says HR’s priorities are clear, however.

“Company’s interests No. 1 – that’s what they’re paid to do – and employees’ interests No. 2,” said Smith, who is also a professor teaching about workplace culture and communication at Emory University and Georgia State University. “They’re good people in HR, but that’s really their motives.

Now, to be clear, Smith said there are times when it makes sense to get help from people in human resources:

1. Discrimination - if you feel like your boss is discriminating against you because of your age, race or sex (or other protected class), HR should help you. This boss is a risk to not only you, but to the entire organization.

2. Unwanted Sexual Advances - if you believe your boss or a co-worker is making unwanted sexual advances at your workplace, HR needs to be notified. However, be warned that HR will ask if you made the offender aware of your discomfort and asked him or her to stop. You'll need to have done that before contacting HR.

3. Hostile Work Environment - if you believe your boss or a co-worker is making your environment a "hostile work environment," you may want to contact human resources. Just be sure that you can back up your claim with specific examples.

4. Difficult / Disruptive Employee - for managers with a particularly difficult or disruptive employee, HR can offer guidance before you do anything too rash. They can help you navigate the situation without putting you or the company at risk.

Smith said the key in these cases is that HR will want to protect you as the employee as well as the company. But otherwise, be careful what you share.

“When you start confiding personal stuff about your life, unless it’s got real relevance to the workplace and you need help, it really doesn’t have a good place [in conversations with HR],” Smith said.

That means when your personal life is in a shambles, you shouldn’t be talking about it to the HR folks.

“You can run the risk that it hurts your reputation,” Smith said, not to mention your prospects for promotion. “If they think that your life is so unstable that if they try to promote you, that’s going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, they may think, ‘Ooh, boy, Joshua, he’s already got his plate full. He’s barely hanging on, I had no idea. We can’t really give him any promotions.’”

Other things you should keep quiet about at work? Your significant other, partner or spouse might be transferred to another city.

“We’re talking about [your partner is] in a profession where they get transferred every six years or every three years,” Smith said. “If HR sees you as someone who’s not going to be around in three years because your spouse will get transferred and you’ll be gone, they won’t invest in you.... You end up limiting your opportunities.”

New moms on maternity leave might want to be careful what they mention to HR, too, especially if they are considering staying at home after their leave, Smith said.

Workers who have a second job to help pay the bills should also use caution, he said.

“You need to have that conversation before you take the second job,” Smith said. “[If] you’re moonlighting because you don’t have enough money, you’re not getting paid enough, go to them before you take the second job but when you’ve made the decision.”

Smith said the key in that conversation is to express your commitment to the organization and ask for other opportunities within the company where you could increase income.

“Here’s what happens: every time you take a sick day, in their mind, you’re not really taking a sick day. You’re going over there to go work,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got to set this up that ‘I’m committed’ before you [take the second job].”

Brandon Smith teaches about leadership, communication, and workplace culture at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. More of his advice is on his blog and at theworkplacetherapist.com. While you’re there, ask him your workplace or career question. We might answer you in a future radio segment.