What shall we do about NDAs?

Sir Philip Green

Non-disclosure agreements are nothing new. They were initially used in commercial transactions in order to protect parties in negotiations from the disclosure of commercially sensitive information. It remains the case that businesses which are considering mergers or acquisitions will normally start the process by requiring the interested parties to sign an agreement that is intended to ensure that, in the event that discussions do not lead to fruition, details of the parties, such as their business plans, forecasts and any other confidential arrangements, are not at risk of being leaked. This makes perfect sense, not least from the point of view of data protection.

Their use has become more widespread and they have moved into the sphere of employment law. It is more or less standard for settlement agreements (on the termination of employment) to include clauses which provide that the parties will keep confidential the terms of settlement and the circumstances giving rise to it. In most cases, this suits both parties. In effect, the employee is agreeing a trade off with the employer that, in return for a pay off which avoids the need for protracted, expensive and uncertain legal proceedings, they will accept an enhanced payment on terms which, to borrow a term from divorce law, provides for a clean break.

However, you can’t have missed the furore that has brought such agreements into the news headlines, particularly in the case of retail supremo Sir Philip Green and media mogul Harvey Weinstein. The #MeToo movement has led to a lively public debate about the inequality of arms which tends to accompany such deals and their ability to conceal serious wrongdoing including illegal activities, particularly discriminatory behaviour and, in the more severe cases, the sexual assault of women.

Was Ryanair’s dismissal of staff a bumpy landing?

It’s fair to say that Ryanair aren’t strangers to controversy.  Whether it be their pricing strategy, public statements or otherwise, they seem to attract publicity for many reasons, whether good or bad.

Given their nature for publicity, it was perhaps predictable that the media (and social media) would seemingly target Ryanair for dismissing six staff members photographed sleeping on the floor of a crewroom in a Spanish airport.  Indeed, on the face of it, it seems bizarre to punish staff who were ‘forced’ to sleep on the floor.

However, as with most situations, there is more to the story than the headline would suggest and, dig a bit deeper, and it seems that Ryanair may actually have had legal grounds for dismissing the six staff members for Gross Misconduct based on the publicised facts.

Now, as a starting point, naturally, you can’t dismiss staff for sleeping on a floor.  That would be ludicrous and completely unfair.  But, in this case, that isn’t why Ryanair dismissed their staff members.

So, why did Ryanair sack them?  What’s the big difference?  Well, put simply, Ryanair believe that the staff members ‘staged’ the photograph and did so with a view to damaging their reputation.  And, whilst people are perhaps inclined to automatically distrust the public statements of big companies in situations like this (and, instead, support the ‘underdog’), it appears that Ryanair has a point.

How can anyone judge this?  Well, put simply, because Ryanair published a CCTV video online showing the staff standing or sitting around and then appearing to agree to the taking of a photograph.  All the staff members then move over and arrange themselves in a close formation on the floor before an individual takes a photograph of them lying on the floor (which they weren’t doing before).