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Annie Hayes



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What’s the answer? Confidentiality – Controlling the office gossip


Pauline Martin gets legal guidance this week from Helen Badger, employment law expert at Browne Jacobson and Martin Brewer, a Partner with the employment team of Mills & Reeve on how to stop a gossip spreading the news.

We have a member of staff who has worked for the company for over 15 years. She is known to be the office gossip.
Recently, we had to move her into our open plan finance office, which is also where my HR assistant is located. This caused us great concern since she can now overhear sensitive and confidential information.

She has been caught passing on details about our company (which she should not know) to a colleague, which she heard through an outside source. Although her manager has spoken to her about this specific incident (and she has a confidentiality clause in her original contract) what can we do to stop her gossiping?

Can I ask her to sign a new confidentiality agreement to reinforce her responsibility to stop spreading the news! and, if so, can anyone please give me a sample?

Pauline Martin

The answers:
Helen Badger, employment law expert, Browne Jacobson

Given that this employee has paid little attention to the existing confidentiality clause in her contract there is probably little point in asking her to sign up to a new agreement. The more effective course of action would be to take disciplinary action against this employee if further breaches of confidentiality can be attributed to her.

The duty not to disclose confidential information about the company an employee works for is implied in all contracts of employment. In addition if there is an express contractual confidentiality clause, as you mention above, further protection is offered.

The first step is to remind the employee of the existence of the clause and inform her that if she is responsible for any breaches of confidentiality then this could lead to disciplinary action. This warning may already have been given to her by her manager.

If any further breaches of confidentiality occur then disciplinary action could reasonably follow. A first breach is likely to lead to a written warning with further violations resulting in more drastic sanctions.

You need to ensure that you follow any disciplinary policy you may have in place and also, if dismissal was contemplated as a consequence of continued breaches of confidentiality, then minimum statutory procedures also need to be followed.

These require you to set out the allegations against the employee in a letter in which you also invite them to a disciplinary hearing. Following the hearing the employee should be notified of the outcome in writing and advised of a right of appeal.

Helen can be contacted at: [email protected]

More information on this issue.

One Response

  1. Open Plan – Open Invitation

    Can you really expect your employees to treat a confidentiality clause seriously if they know that confidential information about members of staff is being discussed in an open plan office?

    If you can’t move your HR assistant you should adopt appropriate working procedures to ensure that all discussions take place in your office or a meeting room and that your assistant transfers “confidential” telephone calls to a telephone where the discussion cannot be overheard. Your assistant should also be taking care to turn off her computer and lock away all confidential data whenever she leaves her desk.

    It’s not ideal but once personal information has been “overheard” the damage is done. Confidentail HR data should not be discussed or worked on in the “public domain” and taking disciplinary action against someone who gossips about it when they shouldn’t have had access to the data in the first place won’t change the fact that your department failed in it’s duty to treat that data confidentially. Once that has happened who will want to entrust you with their personal information?

    Your working arrangements are the problem not the fact that an “office gossip” might over hear confidential information.

    The best protection against disclosure of confidential personnel information is to ensure that personal / confidential data is treated by your staff with the respect that it deserves.

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Annie Hayes


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