Helpline confidentiality row continues as HR urged to reassure staff of safe reporting environments

Employers must reassure staff that any helplines or employee assistance programmes (EAPs) set up will remain 100% confidential in light of the Number 10 bullying row.

The concern comes after Christine Pratt, founder of the National Bullying Helpline (NBH), breached confidentiality by alleging that three or four Downing Street staff had contacted the helpline with claims of bullying at the prime minister’s office.

Anti-bullying experts warned that employees could be put off using so-called confidential phone lines in light of Pratt’s decision to go public about alleged calls.

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Listen to Cary Cooper

Workplace stress expert Cary Cooper says HR professionals should assure staff that any helplines or Employee Assistance Programmes offered by firms are 100% confidential.
Listen to Cary Cooper

Coreen Nugent, a freelance HR practitioner who acts as workplace mediator, told Personnel Today: “Employees are going to think twice about using helplines now. Especially if they work in a sector that is topical and in the news now, for example at Lloyds TSB – they could worry there would be a public outpouring.

“Employers need to reiterate their commitment to staff that they can raise concerns in a safe environment. Employers must encourage staff to have the confidence to raise concerns in confidence, and ensure employees have an understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour at work.”

Ann McCracken, chair of the International Stress Management Association, said: “I’m quite sure Pratt’s actions will have quite serious effects on helplines’ usage and EAPs in general. There will be a lot of concern about them, [users will wonder] just how confidential are they?”

McCracken urged firms to try to foster a culture of mediation as a first point of call.

Cary Cooper, the first patron of the NBH to quit earlier this week citing a breach of confidentiality, urged HR professionals to act quickly to reassure employees that they could raise concerns in a safe environment.

He said: “What’s important is that an individual feels they can report [a concern] and it won’t adversely affect their career, it won’t be on their HR or personnel records.

“It’s up to HR to make sure there is a safe reporting mechanism, even if it is a very senior person, to ensure 100% confidentially, and to make sure it will be investigated and if there’s anything untoward, action will be taken.”

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Christine Pratt defends her actions

National Bullying Helpline founder Christine Pratt talks to Personnel Today about why she went public with the alleged calls made by Downing Street staff. The interview is edited into four separate questions covered by the magazine.

Listen to the full interview (02:19mins)

Elsewhere, The Helplines Association has called for greater power to monitor charity-run helplines to ensure that they adhere to minimum standards. The NBH did not, and was not obliged to register with the national body.

Pratt has maintained that she did not breach confidentiality as she did not name callers or give details of what was said.

She said: “We have not breached confidentiality. There is no rule-book here, we have not done anything that we would not do again.”


Effective features of an Employee Assistance Programme

  • Provision of counselling
  • Independent, confidential service allowing employees to deal with work and personal issues
  • Availability of a telephone helpline 24-hours a day, 365-days a year
  • Availability of the service to employees and family members

Source: Employee assistance programmes: the 2009 IRS survey, published exclusively on XpertHR

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