Sunday, November 21, 2004

HR - Sorry, It's Confidential!

How often have we asked people about something only to receive the terse reply that “I’m sorry but it’s confidential!”… assuming of course, they are polite enough to even apologise! I have heard it so many times in my life. In the business world, we often here it from the HR department. I find it sad, coming from the HR profession. I really think that on many occasions, the secrecy is unjustified.

Confidentiality like many other things, can be used for good and also, definitely for bad. The problem is that since what those in authority are keeping confidential is well… confidential, then how are we to figure out whether what these people are doing is justified. In most cases, it is just not possible. However, I do not think that being meek about all it will help. Despite the Chap upsatirs saying that the meek shall inherit the earth, our inheritance is probably still awhile away and in the meantime, we should stand up to all this shit that people throw at us and fully expecting us to lap it up! As a rule of thumb, I think we should always be bold enough to ask probing questions. Specifically we should ask something like, “It may be confidential but tell me why it is so?” Surely the reasons why something is confidential is not confidential as well! Puh-leeze!

The many times I have seen confidentiality used in an unjustified manner, I have been on the “inside” as it were. This is when I have seen confidentiality used as a shield to protect what could not be publicly justified with a good degree of confidence. Yes, there are issues in business (especially HR) that will always be sensitive and emotional and it may be naïve to think we will always be able to appeal to people’s good / common sense. As we should all be aware, common sense is not that common! However, we in Asia need to be more confident of our methods and our own people’s maturity. In more developed countries and societies, the general level of education is higher and people have a greater compunction to fight for their rights and question those in authority. It is time for us to get off our backsides and follow suit so that those in authority are more accountable to us, the people. In a business sense, those that are in a position to keep confidences ought to be accountable to the company and its shareholders.

In Asian politics we often here the refrain that our people / society are not ready for this, that and the other, mostly the so-called western concepts of transparency, liberal attitudes etc. To me, this is at best, over cautiousness by the powers that be and at worst, a ploy to safeguard the status quo (and subtly retain the reigns of power) for as long as possible.

I will be the first to concede that change, too fast, too soon, could be detrimental to all and sundry. Witness the events which caused the USSR to disintegrate. On the other hand, we can see how Deng Xiaoping’s cautious approach to capitalism has played a major part in making China what it is today. But I digress…

We in business, especially those of us in HR, need to loosen up! Engage the people (whom we in HR are supposed to be championing) in debate! Increase the level of transparency in our practices and decision making. If you really think that even a cautious opening up will cause anarchy, I seriously question your policies or practices in the first place! Yes, running a business may not be the same as running a democracy but we must never forget that we need our employees' buy-in and support to get things done. And dear employees, this is where we need to stand up and be counted!

We as humble employees or shareholders are also at fault. We do not hold our employers or companies sufficiently accountable for what they do. We are insufficiently assertive enough in our approach. And we blame companies for running roughshod over us! As a group, shareholders or employees have tremendous power. If we begin to vote with our feet, market forces will ensure that Companies pay attention to us. If many employees (i.e. a critical mass) are unhappy with a company’s policies, the company will have no choice but to change and reform.

Wake up and smell the flowers! HR is supposed to be championing us (amongst their other equally important strategic and administrative activities). They are not supposed to be keeping us in the dark. Its time to clean house and help them open the windows ever so slightly so that the sun may begin to shine through... So that fresh air can blow away the stuffiness that permeates many a HR dept. We may find a couple of skeletons here and there in the cupboards but really, its water under the bridge. We can be magnanimous. After all, I believe that it is in all in our interest and for our own good as employees! And if you don’t want to fight the status quo, then us all a favour and stop whining and go be an entrepreneur and follow what the “gahmen” has been asking people to do!


At 11:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think FEAR of being black listed and the environment around us makes it hard for ppl to speak up. Esp when nobody is indispensable, ppl are afraid of being replaced.
It will take many more years to come for Singapore to really SPEAK UP..... Which is also why there are only a handful of LOCAL entrepreneur.

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