GDPR is Coming – Why HR Should Have a Key Role in its Success

Charlie Knox, head of technology SD Worx, UK

Exactly who should be responsible for data protection within an organisation? Should it be a matter for C-level staff only? Or the IT department? The sales and marketing department collecting customer information? Or is it time to appoint a dedicated Data Protection Officer?

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on 25 May 2017. It applies to any organisation that processes the personal data of EU citizens regardless of where they are situated. Brexit won’t let UK companies off the hook as the government has announced that the legislation will be brought into UK law.


GDPR enhances and extends current privacy laws. For example, existing data subject rights to receive a copy of data and the right to rectification are extended with shorter time limits for compliance. There are also new rights such as the right to erasure (although these aren’t quite so broad as the much-discussed right to be forgotten) and there are new obligations to report any breaches. In all, it covers around 250 pages which at times lapse into vagueness, so despite its importance it very much requires business to work through it, taking guidance from local bodies and deciding how to adapt working practices in order to conform.

The potential fines have been described as ‘eye-watering’ alongside the reputational risk of being found as non-compliant has focused minds around this issue of responsibility. As a result, many companies have reached a consensus – to make this change happen successfully HR have a key, if not leading role to play.

I would agree. While it may in the short term appear to be a burden, especially as time frames are becoming short, I believe HR teams will rise to the challenge, transforming a chore into a positive initiative. The creation of rigorous guidelines for personnel data will then act as a template for other data held such as information on customers and prospects.

The HR department is already the custodian of the employee interest and engagement, they are also used to leading organisational wide change programmes. Because of all of this they attract a certain degree of trust and confidence which is necessary to ensure that the organisation’s colleagues buy in to the steps being taken to protect their data as well as that of their customers. At the same time as considering the financial and reputational impacts of noncompliance, everyone should consider the impact to employee confidence in their employer should there be a loss or miss handling of HR data.

HR will be familiar with current data protection laws and the processes an organisation has in place to support them. It’s important to know what processes are already in place so that these can be extended to cover the new legislation.

Each business will have to work out how the legislation impacts them and then work out the policies, processes and procedures that must be changed to support the legislation. HR teams are accustomed to writing policy, creating processes and communicating them so that everyone can follow. They are also the experts in training staff too – a necessary task so that everyone understands why certain steps are taken.

They also have good knowledge of risk and employee behaviour. They will understand that staff requests to view data are bound to grow and be more than capable of dealing with this increase, preferably through clear, well-defined paths of communications and strong process.

It must be remembered that GDPR is still a business-wide challenge and privacy and security measures need to be integrated into processes across the board. There’s no doubt that IT departments will need to work closely with HR – especially as to where data is being held and how to access it. The new right to erasure will require knowledge of any hidden silos of information and potentially technical expertise to remove or archive it. Getting a clear data retention policy is a time-consuming process as the legislation doesn’t in anyway override the need to keep other records for other legal purposes such as that of auditing payments, etc. The benefits of getting this right give your teams a clear guide on what to hold and for how long and really take the ambiguity out of some of the decision-making process.

Personally, I can’t remember another security and data protection initiative that has focused and led to such engaging and open conversations. The level of transparency we are seeing between our organisation, our suppliers and our customers is at an all-time high and personally I believe this is leading to greater confidence in the supply chain and stronger relationships. So, it’s important not to focus on the fines for non-compliance, but rather the positive results – the focus on driving greater collaboration between the internal units of the business and also externally with customers, partners and suppliers. If HR can lead the way, championing this positivity and showcasing their expertise in personal data issues it can only be good for them – and for the business.

We’ve been working with our customers who are implementing GDPR for a while now and the level of activity is ramping up now May 2018 is in sight. There’s no doubt that adoption is not just about data security – it’s an opportunity for cultural change and a new way of working.

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