Can an Internal Coach or HR Pro Be Trusted With Your Secrets?


At The Conference Board’s Executive Coaching Conference
that I recently attended, we spent some time in one of the sessions discussing concerns with HR pros being designated or trained as
internal coaches in organizations due to trust and credibility issues. (Note: attendees at the conference were primarily external coaches and OD professionals.)

Here’s a tweet I sent out during the discussion:

TCB Coaching tweet

I guess the discussion made me a bit #sad because as a former Human Resources pro myself, I felt like I was effective as an internal “coach”. Whether working with an employee as part of their career development process or providing support to some making it through performance improvement plans, I worked hard to balance their need for confidentiality in the process with my responsibilities to the organization. I took pride in being someone that employees at all levels could talk to and one CEO even referred to me as his Consigliere – which considering some of the bullets I took for him, was kind of fitting.

But I do recall a conversation I had one day with an employee who was experiencing some issues at work. When I offered to listen and provide support, she said “Unfortunately, I can’t talk to you about this. It’s not that I don’t trust you personally. It’s the chair that you sit in. You have the authority to fire me. And I can’t risk that.”

After she left my office, I thought about what she’d said. I wanted to be offended. But I kinda understood where she was coming from. While it was frustrating that she wouldn’t allow me to try to help out just because of my position in the organization, I also knew that sometimes it was part of my role to be involved in making decisions about her career. So sharing a weakness or performance problem with someone who has that type of influence could be perceived as a risk.

Fast forward to today, where I work with clients as an external Executive Coach… The feedback I’ve received from clients is that one of the most helpful aspects of the coaching process is the opportunity to speak confidentially with someone outside of the organization who can listen, support, challenge and guide them. I’ve listened as senior level clients have shared with me a variety of potentially career damaging things – being afraid of making decisions, that they’re intimidated by a peer or they’re unhappy in their jobs. We’ve been able to work through and resolve those issues, but I’ve often wondered if it would be a challenge for me as an internal coach to have access to that same information.

HR often seems to get thrown under the bus in regards to confidentiality and credibility issues (if you’re the one causing that to happen, then please STOP), but I don’t agree that credibility/trust of internal coaches is an “HR” issue. I think it’s more about the perceived confidentiality that an external coach can provide – no matter how good an internal coach may be.

I think it’s hard for employees not to feel at risk when sharing information with people in a position to influence their careers.

What do you think? Can HR pros serve as effective coaches inside their organizations? Do external coaches have an advantage over internals?

The conversation at the conference has caused me to wonder if maybe the employee who was preoccupied with where I parked my derriere each day was on to something…

President & Chief Talent Strategist

Jennifer McClure is a Keynote Speaker, Talent Strategies Expert and Executive Coach who works with clients and companies in the areas of leadership development, communication and talent strategy. Jennifer McClure offers keynotes, workshops and training that inspire and empower business leaders to be more effective in their careers and as leaders of their organization’s most valuable resource – people.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

36 thoughts on “Can an Internal Coach or HR Pro Be Trusted With Your Secrets?

  1. You bring up a very interesting issue that faces our profession more and more. I know too many HR people who have blown the trust of their employees in a grand fashion !! Unfortunately, it only takes one example like that to destroy credibility potentially throughout the entire company.
    I think too many people are missing a basic fact about “trust.” Everyone feels it has to be earned first before it’s given. That just doesn’t work !!
    Successful HR people I know give trust first knowing that they’ll be burnt and disappointed by a few, but the majority of people long for this outreach.
    I would encourage HR people to give trust first. It works !! I’ve been doing it for almost 25 years in HR and I’ve only seen great results. It also has opened doors for me professionally and has been a benchmark that I can offer to my company.

  2. I think Steve is right. Successful HR people give trust first, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. Successful HR folks walk a fine line every day. We know more about our employees than probably anyone else in the company (double or triple the amount of information if you’re a HR pro that connects with your employees on social media sites). Now, I think what you do with that information is what makes you successful or not. How do you balance the employee’s need for confidentially vs. your corporate responsibility? Can your employees trust that if they come to you for advice or counsel that the information shared won’t be used against them? Do you, the HR pro, know if you can share and to whom you can share the information with and it won’t be used against the employee? Meaning, everyone, even folks on your sr. management team, can’t handle all of the information that HR pros see on a daily basis. Do you know who those folks are? HR has to be able to handle this type of information from all sides. It truly takes a rock star to be able to be an effective internal coach AND corporate HR pro.
    Great post, Jennifer!

  3. As a past manager and HR person I can tell you from experience that the “trust” issue is affected by more than just the HR person of the week. The entire company must operate on the basis of trust, and we all know that this is never the case. HR does get caught in the middle of the trust game, and must walk a delicate balance of representing the company’s interests and helping the employees.
    You are only in control of one person – yourself. I made it a personal management practice to never betray a trust or confidence no matter what the personal consequences which were sever at times. My decision got me into hat water more the once, but it also cemented the respect of peers and subordinates alike, and my effectiveness for the organization was never questioned.
    How you take care of you is a personal decision that is made by each person individually. You should be the same person corporately as you are individually. HR has a three edged duty to company, employee, and self. Never forget that.

  4. The HR trust issue has further suffered in the economic downturn. HR leaders are viewed as “hatchmen” making decisions about who stays or goes. And due to budget cuts, they have fewer training, development or other contributions to offer as a friendly counterbalance.
    HR professionals must continue to define what employees can really expect of them, and earn back trust through exceptional follow through on promises. Organizational credibility is the first key to opening the more personal coaching relationship.

  5. As an HR professional and an Exec. Coach you need to develop Trust before you can get anything moving. If people or Executive don’t feel they can confied in you the entirer HR function has no credibility. On the other hand confidiance in the HR organization is also need for anyone to reach out to HR. You can’t coach someone if you don’t build trust. Unfortunately, there are more non-professional in HR than real professionals today.

  6. I think unfortunately sometimes the trust issue is an HR problem, depending on what the HR rep decides to do after your meeting. As a person on the lower end of the totem pole, sometimes I want to go to HR to ask them about how to deal with issues with my superior, or I’ll vent about problems I’m having with a direct report and then the next day something gets said to my boss or a note gets written in my file about not being an effective manager. (In one instance where I was seeking help with my boss, my conversation with HR was repeated verbatim to the person that I was complaining about). I don’t trust all HR reps not to share information that I may have discussed with them and have at times actually been told by my superiors not to tell HR certain things because it will be misconstrued. So I think there are many situations where the distrust has been earned.

  7. To put it bluntly, no. My experience with HR in corporate life has earned my active distrust.
    I have been badly burned twice by HR people in two different companies. I will never again tell HR anything that could be turned on me. Indeed, I will be professionally polite and discuss nothing but the local weather. In one instance, I was burned by both HR and the company’s Medical Review Office. Never again. I am now in my early 50’s, sadder but wiser.
    This, of course, means that any employer’s EAP’s are now off limits to me. Due to my age (yes, age discrimination is alive and well in the US), my next bad experience with HR could be the end of my career. I cannot take that chance.
    I might consider trusting an external coach, but only if that person had no idea who my employer was. Cynical? Paranoid? Maybe, but I have ample reason to think that way, or at least be highly suspicious of HR. There is an old saying in military circles that “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” I cannot take the chance on number three.
    I hope I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings here. I am just being truthful. HR professionals have “used and abused” my trust twice with devastating consequences to myself and my family. Never again.

  8. As an HR rep, employees have shared information with me that they don’t want the CEO to know, or have made suggestions but wish to remain anonymous when the suggestion is presented to the CEO. What happens when the CEO demands to know specifics about a situation or the person’s name, and states they question my loyalty to the company and intentions if I don’t divulge the information they’re requesting?

  9. HR’s primary role within a corporation is to protect the corporation from legal issues. With that in mind, whose side is HR really on? – the corporation of course.
    Anyone who thinks they can safely confide in HR is dreaming and could end up with a nightmare.
    I’m not syaing HR people are bad, it’s just that their primary duty is to protect their bosses (and their jobs as well).
    External coaches are a much better way to go, however one should make sure they have a written legal agreement with the coach that no personally identifiable information will be shared with the corporation. That’s really the best way to get safe coaching or relevant advice.
    JIm

  10. I have managed retail stores for over 32 years for 7 different national companies. Never trust HR. They have no knowledge or experience with anything ‘human’ and most definitely have nothing to do with ‘resource’. Two positions in retail companies have no use and should be eliminated at the first possible opportunity: HR and DMs. ‘Don’t get me going on this.

  11. As an employee I’ve learned never to trust HR about anything. If I have a problem with an employee, I’ve been a supervisor and a manager, HR is the last place to go. I haven’t found them very helpful in the hiring process and god help you if you have performance issue you can’t move to another department and really have to fire someone. Try to document poor performance and you would think you are attacking the HR person’s sainted grandmother. Have a problem with a superior – don’t talk to HR about it go and find another job.
    Just a worker bee

  12. Some people live in la la land when it comes to HR. It’s there to protect the company, not the employee. I never had good experiences with HR. I had to learn how to play the game, by sticking to company policies, especialy when the company or the superviser does not. I knew if I screw up something, they will take those policies and use them on me. It’s o.k for them to mis-use the policies but it not o.k for the individual caught in a situation. I was told many time to stay away from HR. A director and my Superviser told me to stay away. I would get threats to stay away. It’s a joke.

  13. Integrity , confidence, and trust are essential if you are an HR person. At the same time, make no mistake that above all of this is the fact that HR is thre to promote the welfare of the copany first, employees second. I think in this case it is better to have external coaches onhand rather than internal ones. I’ve had people come tome and share sensitive information. My measure of confidentiality is simple, as long s it does not violate any laws, it does not compromise the company, it is not against company policy, then I will not tell anybody else.

  14. @Steve – Giving trust first and knowing that some people will burn you is tough, but I agree with you – it’s the best way. The majority of people deserve that, so we shouldn’t treat everyone like the minority.
    @Tom – Keeping confidences can be done while also being a great HR person. Sounds like you were able to successfully set that example in your HR career!
    @Crystal – Great point about HR pros needing to be able to also assess the credibility of others in the organization to know who can be trusted with the info they have. Trust is not just an “HR” issue!
    @Julie – The effects of the bad economy have indeed hit HR (and company management) hard. Your point about earning trust back through exceptional follow through is a good one.
    @sja2161 – Building trust with someone you’re coaching is essential and how well a coach (or HR rep) does that within the first few interactions is critical.
    @Mara – It sounds like the HR people in your organization have broken your trust on more than one occasion. I’d like to think that is more related to the individuals in the position versus the position itself. I hope you can find some people in your company worthy of your trust until that changes!
    @QuestionAuthority – Wow! I’m so sorry to hear that you have been let down so much by the people you’ve worked with. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for those you’ll work with in the future who will have to work harder to earn your trust. I hope that does happen for you someday.
    @Melissa – If an employee approached me with a suggestion, but wanted to remain anonymous, I’d let them know that I can’t really do anything with that. Of course the CEO is going to want to know who the suggestion came from. HR can’t be a shield for employees who don’t have the courage to come forward. However, if an employee brought a potentially legit complaint or issue to me and wanted to be anonymous, I’d try tot confirm it by talking with others to see if they have the same concern or issue (never mentioning the employee of course). If I could find a few people expressing similar concerns, then I’d feel comfortable bringing it forward something that several employees have a concern about – and no names would be necessary. Tough to do, but it can be done.
    @Jim – I disagree that HR primary role is to protect the company from legal issues. I believe it’s to support and develop the people resources within the organization. Compliance may be a piece of that, but that’s no different than any other role in the company that has compliance responsibilities. I do agree with you on having a written agreement with an external coach about what’s expected.
    @Bocky – I won’t get you going, but I disagree that it’s about “HR”. More likely the individuals you’ve dealt with along the way versus the profession.
    @Ray – I hope you have the opportunity to work with a fabulous HR person at some point in your career who can show you how a great HR partner can help you and your team!
    @Hubbard – Keep the faith! There are some good HR people out there who can show you that “good HR” is much more than protecting the company (or the employee). It’s about helping both the company and employees be successful – not holding people back.
    @Jake – Good philosophy! If an employee approached me and asked me to keep something confidential, I would always tell them that I’d be happy to do so if it wasn’t something that I would be required to act on. I let them make the decision before talking to me and if I felt it needed to go beyond our discussion, I’d talk with them about how to best do that and keep their trust.

  15. Unfortunately, I must say that I’m one of the “former” employees that does not and will never trust internal HR again. Could be the company I worked for, however, they immediately went to my supervisor and reported what I had told them – in this case harrassement issues. I was promptly fired, and HR came to my ex-boss’ rescue, in making sure they had some obscure document that I would not be able to collect unemployment. So, my case in point, no I don’t trust HR and will never again – real life.

  16. Hi Jennifer,
    Considering the responses above, why is it that so many employers say that “HR is there for you to use, to help you, etc. etc.?” When the truth comes out, it only makes employees mistrustful and fearful, so productivity drops. No one likes to be looking anxiously over their shoulder every day.
    What’s the point of manager’s encouragement to employees to go to HR with issues, if it’s employment suicide for so many people?

  17. Jim’s comment is right on target. HR works for the company and has the responsibility to report any discussion to the powers that be, whether it was stated to remain confidential or not.
    People in HR are not therapists nor are they career coaches. They have their limitations so if a person needs help beyond the scope of what can be improved on in the position currently held, seek out a specialist.

  18. HR in the last company I worked for was only good for one thing. And that was to side with management on everything. I saw a lot of people go to them for problems about management or about a process and that said employee would end up on a write up or fired. The HR always sided with management on just about everything. So can they be trusted? Absolutely not! I will never go to HR for anything other then questions regarding benefits.
    I start having problems at my job I will just start looking for a new job as to taking a chance of getting fired by going to HR.

  19. HR departments tend to be populated by inept dolts who don’t have the first clue about what it really takes to successfully fulfill a job. Why HR departments continue to exist is a mystery to me, except that they do the hiring.

  20. Ouch! I’m not feeling ay nlove for HR pros in the comments above. As a HR pro, we only have ourselves to blame for the comments. Yes, we work for the company and have a job to do, and it’s not being a therapist. Our job involves listening to employees (not just managers), problem solving and helping with cultural and performance issues. It’s about being a good listener and keeping information to yourself unless there is a good business reason that requires information to be shared. A good HR pro knows the difference.
    However, I think that coaching is a very different situation then most of the comments above are talking about. Coaching usually involves working one on one with an employee as part of their personal and professional development on an ongoing basis. Due to limited resources, it is usually higher level managers, executives or employees identified as high potential. There has to be a significant amount of trust and confidentiality required for these formal relationships to work.

  21. Inept dolts? That’s more than harsh. I’m sorry to hear that you think that HR is not worthy of being in business.
    Let me offer one counterpoint . . .
    Businesses have humans and most businesses without an effective HR effort suffer because no one is there for them.
    You may think that HR isn’t “there” for people and I agree that those folks hurt the profession.
    But, inept dolts? I’d love to hear what profession your in and what HR person hurt you so much.
    I hope that turns around for you in the future.

  22. Bonnie – What happened to you is wrong. Period. And it borders on illegal. I’m sorry that someone felt that the company came before you when you brought this type of issue to them.
    That is bad HR. However, I would contend that there are good HR pros in many companies who would be as put off by this situation as I am.
    I hope that you now have a better culture to work in and an HR effort that supports you.

  23. I’ve always been an external coach or consultant and as such Jennifer’s post is insightful and validates the observations that I’ve made from the “outside”…. Specifically, most people feel “one of the most helpful aspects of the coaching process is the opportunity to speak confidentially with someone outside of the organization who can listen, support, challenge and guide them.”
    That one sentence says it all… organizations would do well to listen!

  24. @QuestionAuthority – Again, I don’t necessarily think this is an “HR” issue. I think it’s individuals who have worked in HR that have let some people down. I’m sure that some of these same people have been let down by managers or people with influence in other departments too. Not all humans can be trusted – but most can. Most HR people can too.
    @Nathan – I hope that you work somewhere with a great HR person some day who can change your opinions of the profession. It’s possible – so don’t give up!
    @Adave – Big generalization there… It’s not ok for HR pros to say that ALL employees are inept dolts either. There may be a few employees along that way that could fit in that category, but that doesn’t meant they all do.
    @Steve – Thanks for continuing to remind us that there are HR pros out there who are positive, passionate and have credibility with the employees they work with – because they’ve earned it.
    @Bonita – You know I love you! You’re one of my favorite HR pros. 🙂
    @Lindsay – Since you agree with me – I agree with you. 🙂

  25. The impact an internal HR coach can have does need to be based on trust, which is hopefully the culture of the company. Like any confidante, trust is built after having established a relationship, developing boundaries and evolves.
    Having worked with both internal and external coaches, an internal coach can help you in the context of them knowing about your management, peers and subordinates, and give you tips, while retaining everyone’s confidentiality. Like any other relationship, some have worked better than others, some I retain, and some I regret. But from all I have learned something that I think has made me more effective as a leader.

  26. Very interesting conversation…extremely glad I came across this.
    There is a very simple solution to this – Organizational Ombudsman.
    As a internal designated neutral, confidential, independent and informal resource to assist organizational membership with the issues they face Ombuds create exceptional value (one office I audite was returning more than $22,000,000 of value on a <800K budget) enjoy very high trust ratings according to surveys, and have NO FORMAL authority, so the "firing fear" is removed. There are "in" the organization, but not "of" the organization affording them cultural familiarity, proximity, and access to essential information. Legally supported confidentiality privilege allows this function to NOT be an office of record, so individuals can safely explore even the most difficult and complex issues, with out fear of loosing control of the process. Having won the OPM Director's Award for Outstanding Federal ADR Program when I served as Ombuds at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, where we went from last to first in two years on Health and Human Services Quality of Worklife survey, I am comfortable saying these are impactful programs that make significant and measurable differences quickly and inexpensively. Developing and deploying this function is at once quite simple but also nuanced.
    You can read more at: http://conflictbenefit.com/images/Organizational_Ombuds_ProgramWeb.pdf
    And feel free to contact me with any additional questions.
    Again -glad to have found this site. Thanks.

  27. My current company is out to get employees. In other words, they look for the bad and ignore the goodness that a person brings to the company. I used to work for a company where the HR Department was fair and trustworthy. They helped employees who were mistreated. I have seen both sides of this issue. Unfortunatly it is hard to know which kind of HR Department is in charge at the company that you work for.

  28. A lot of good points, opinions and some maybe wrong comments as well. I think that HR pros can serve as effective coaches inside their companies?
    The keys in my mind are (1) outlining to the person the extent of the confidential conversation/coaching. There are some things that we may not be able to hold. As long as they understand that it will help (2) Relationship – I think if you have a string relationship w/ whoever you are coaching it brings a great deal to how you can leverage the experience and (3) How your organizations treat the HR function and what if they allow, in no uncertain terms, for HR to do the job of an internal coach effectively.
    Now if these items do not exist in the company then I do believe that in many cases that an external coach will have an advantage over any internal
    my 32 cents :o)

  29. Jennifer,
    Great, if not painful, discussion going on here.
    Interestingly, it is because of my positive interactions with HR folks while in college that I got into HR myself. In fact, it was the HR Manager of a local retail chain that made the biggest impact on me. He stood up for me, not the company.
    Everyone has a story: some good, some bad, some indifferent. And, like most things, people will express negative experiences before they’ll express positive experiences. Typically, we see this in peoples’ reactions to customer service (or lack thereof). But, as we have seen, this also carries over to HR. Human resources issues are very personal and invoke a lot of emotion.
    As an HR professional, all I can do is all I can do. I think the good HR professionals strive every day to find that right balance between protecting the employee and protecting the company. As Bonita suggests, the good ones know where to draw that line.
    I would hope, as well as most HR professionals on this discussion do, that everyone consider the perosn in the role, not the role itself. I appreicate that it can be hard to do. If I judged every hiring manager by my experiences with a handful of the worst, I might think that all hiring managers are “inept”. But, I know that is not the case. I know that there are some really good hiring managers in my organization, and it does me no good to project the traits of bad managers onto the good ones.

  30. Along the way, you’re probably going to be burnt a few times, yes. But you’re working towards a strategic long-term goal.
    In the long-run, a good HR person can make a career out of building relationships, just like I have. Send me into a room with employees I don’t know or with employees I’ve known for years, and you get the same result.
    Then you will never again have to hear someone say that (what they did to Jennifer) again. It upsets me to hear when employees think their company or their HR Department is out to get them.

  31. Jennifer:
    Great post and comments! Like you, I take a lot of pride in my ability to maintain confidentiality and be discreet. It’s an expectation that I hold my team to as well. However, you’re right, it’s a perception issue. Same reason we hire outside firms to process our employee opinion surveys.
    I think it’s a bad assumption to assume anything you tell an external coach isn’t going to go anywhere. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen with external coaches that have multiple clients in the same organization.

  32. It strikes me that the word that is missing in this discussion is “power.”
    The distrust you address in your post is a function of power… not of ineptitude. The fact that this conversation so quickly derailed into charges of wrong-doing and incompetence in some accounts is an indictment on two fronts: first, that HR too often has no clear charter when it comes to individual coaching needs, and second, that humans–not just in HR but generally–often create/sustain problems by painting issues with a broad brush. (e.g., “I will never trust HR again” leads to mistrust even when it isn’t merited.)
    There’s a place in this world for external coaches… but the real opportunity is for us to be open-minded, aware of power dynamics, and FEARLESS in our dealings with others.

  33. This in an interesting discussion. I believe that on average, most people have a good, trusting relationship with HR. Employees are informed and represented well in day-to-day company business. Everyone is happy and on the same team. On the rare occurrence that an employee does have a serious issue, this relationship is tested. Rules change. HR is no longer a co-worker or employee rep, but an advocate and protector of the company. Your perspective of “the right thing” may depend upon which of these three players’ sideline you happen to be sitting.

  34. I learned that all people cannot be trusted when I was in 2nd grade and my strategic dodge-ball alliance beaned me in the head in order to claim her own victory. (Moral- Be careful, people will double cross you for their own successes.)
    A few rules I try and follow when facing a decision and they apply to most situations.
    Rule 1- Do not set the stage for failure- Do not put the HR pro in a “no-win” situation, such as, asking them if there are any other available positions in the company because you your supervisor is abusive, harassing, or discriminating. They are expected to take action in such cases.
    Rule 2- Have reasonable expectations- I think it is very important to understand that unless the HR pro is a personal friend you are discussing your future with someone who is expected to have loyalty to the company.
    Unfortunately, some fail to realize they can have a confidential conversation with an employee and still be loyal to their boss (employee relations) and frequently share information that was meant to be confidential.
    Rule 3- Trust your instincts- Unless the HR pro is brand new, they will have a reputation. If that voice in the back of your head has doubts as to the trustworthiness of the HR pro, listen to it.
    If in doubt, go out- If you are 50/50 and cannot decide to trust your HR pro, I would advise to lean to the external coach. If an external coach were to “burn” your confidentiality, it would be a kiss of death to their reputation.
    Finally, if you are convinced the world is out to get you- Explore a confidentiality agreement!

  35. Thanks for the great discussion. It brings to mind two key things a mentor of mine repeated to me many times: 1)You build trust through your choice of behaviors, and 2)high performance is achieved by balancing the needs of the individual, the team, and the organization.
    You can only be successful as an internal coach if you consistently make the right choices and balance the competing needs within your work world. Doing so effectively builds one’s reputation as a professional who “gets the big picture”, “thinks strategically”, and helps enable success across the spectrum.
    I think the more you demonstrate these abilities, the more influential you become, and the easier it becomes to operate in this manner day in and day out. Not an easy task and my experience is that only a relatively small % of people can do it, whether in HR or otherwise. Celebrate and encourage those you see demonstrating these talents. Maybe we’ll all see more positive outcomes!

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