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).

Red Dead Redemption 2: Is ‘crunching’ actually voluntary overtime?

Cowboy Later today, the review embargo lifts on the biggest video game since Grand Theft Auto 5.  Even those of you not of a video gaming persuasion have no doubt noticed the constant advertisements online, on the TV and on the side of buses for “Red Dead Redemption”.

What is Red Dead Redemption 2?  Well, it’s an adventure game set in the Wild West with the almost mandatory mix of horse chases, gun-slinging and exploring a vast desert-esque landscape.

So, why is it such a big deal?  One word: Rockstar.  Rockstar are the equivalent of Apple 10 years ago.  By that, I mean that nearly every product they make receives rave reviews (at least 95% on average) and is known for its brutal, gritty storytelling.  As an example of their attention to detail, in some shape or form, work on this game has been ongoing for eight years with a budget larger than many Hollywood movies!

So, surely, eight years is more than enough to make a good game.  Well, yes.  But Rockstar want to make ‘extraordinary’ games not just good or very good ones.  And this, unfortunately for them, has led to a lot of media controversy over supposedly ‘voluntary’ overtime and the issue of ‘crunching’.

Let’s tackle the media controversy first.

Mental Health First Aid in the workplace

October the 10th marked World Mental Health Day, a time to stop and consider how we can best support those around us who may be struggling. Given the amount of time we collectively spend in the workplace each week, particular thought should be given to the importance of mental health support at work. 

There is already
legislation in place providing the requirement for employers to ensure employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work,
but what about helping those suffering with mental illness? If an employee for example has a panic attack or is expressing suicidal thoughts?

The concept of
‘Mental Health First Aid’ originated in Australia where Professor Anthony Jorm, a researcher from the University of Melbourne was discussing with his wife, Betty Kitchener, a registered nurse, a recent mental health conference that he had attended. Within the conversation it was remarked that ‘What we really need is first aid for depression’. The idea has spread rapidly from there – developing
into an internationally recognised programme comprised of simple steps that can be called upon to help a person in distress.

Tick, tock: Will employees have longer to bring Employment Tribunal claims in the future?

Employment Tribunal fees. Simple, right? Everyone knows that employees ‘have three months to claim’ and that’s that? Not really. What about the fact that Equal Pay claims (and certain other types of claim) have a six-month time limit? That doesn’t tie into the presumption of simplicity. What about an employee who is dismissed on 2nd January and serves a 3 month notice period, so their last day is 1st April – do you count the three months from notification of dismissal or from their final day at work? How much does a period of Acas Early Conciliation extend any given time limit by? I could go on and on…

Overall, what is surely uncontroversial for both employees and employers alike is that simplicity is key. If everyone understands how long an employee has to bring a claim, everyone has the certainty of knowing the period within which to consider conciliation, negotiation and/or the obtaining advice regarding a prospective claim.

An unwanted kiss is “Strictly” verboten at work

Strictly Come Dancing

Last Monday I watched the evening’s newspaper front pages coming in on Twitter and nearly every one featured the romantic kiss between celebrity Sean(n) Walsh and professional dancer Katya Jones caught by The Sun on what happened to be his girlfriend’s birthday. It was the lead and second lead news on the BBC News website. Seann’s now ex-girlfriend who had been shown in the audience on Saturday evening’s programme was understandably unimpressed and her public response to their public indiscretion is worth seeing as one of the best put downs I’ve seen for some time.

So why am I writing about this on the Employment Solutions blog. Well, there was an interesting case reported this month which cost an employer £24,000 for similar behaviour in work, albeit non-consensual.

Discrimination in Recruitment: How to Avoid Discriminatory Advertisements

It is important that employers are mindful of their obligation to carry out a recruitment and selection process that is non-discriminatory in nature. Employers should therefore allocate sufficient time and care when publishing job advertisements so as not to be caught out – there is no cap on damages awarded at the Employment Tribunal for a successful discrimination claim so any mistake could prove very costly.

As a
starting point, a job advertisement must not discriminate on the basis of any
of the nine protected characteristics as defined under the Equality Act 2010,
which as a refresher are:

Legal professional privilege can be lost if what is being discussed is “iniquitous”

Most people are familiar with the idea that legal advice is “privileged” from disclosure, i.e. that is remains private between the client and his or her legal advisers. In the United States that has become a hot issue concerning President Trump and those around him, not least his longstanding personal attorney and recent convict, Michael Cohen.

Nearer to home, the issue has been considered by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of X v Y Limited.

“X” was employed by “Y” as a lawyer from January 1990 until his dismissal on 31 January 2017. X suffers from type 2 diabetes and obstructive sleep apnoea. Records showed that there were concerns about X’s performance at work from 2011. X complained that measures taken by his employer amounted to disability discrimination and/or failure to make reasonable adjustments. He raised a grievance in March 2016 and an outcome letter was issued in June 2016.

In the meantime Y announced a voluntary redundancy process. Having been unsuccessful in applying for certain roles, X was placed in a “redundancy consultation process”.

At his employment tribunal hearing the employment judge accepted that, in May 2016, X overheard a conversation at the Old Bank of England pub in Fleet Street. The conversation was the subject of a claim of legal professional privilege. X said that a group of professionally dressed people including two women in their 30s or 40s came into the pub. One mentioned a disability discrimination complaint by a senior lawyer at Y. She said that there was a good opportunity to manage X out by severance or redundancy because there was a big reorganisation under way.

In his claim X relied on the conversation to interpret an email that he was sent anonymously in late October 2016. The email had been sent by “A”, a senior lawyer, to “B”, a lawyer who had been assigned to Y. The content of the email was not read out in court at the initial tribunal hearing. X maintained that the email contained advice on how to commit unlawful victimisation by using the redundancy/restructuring programme “as a cloak to dismiss” X. Y maintained that the email was legally professionally privileged.

Y terminated the employment of X, ostensibly by reason of redundancy, by three months’ notice ending on 31 January 2017.

In the employment tribunal, Employment Judge Tsamados decided that the email “did not disclose a strong prima facie case of iniquity”. Legal professional privilege can be lost if what is being discussed in “iniquitous”, i.e. (according to the Employment Appeal Tribunal);

“…beyond conduct which merely amounts to a civil wrong; he has indulged in sharp practice, something of an underhand nature where the circumstances required good faith, something which commercial men would say was a fraud or which the law treats as entirely contrary to public policy.”

On appeal Mrs Justice Slade noted that Judge Tsamados did not take into account the conversation in the pub. She concluded that it was right not to do so because it was not authorised by Y and could not therefore assist in determining its position and because there was no contemporaneous note taken.

However, as far as the email was concerned, there were relevant background factors to be taken into account.

You leave this court without the slightest stain on your character, except…

disclosure and barringCRB checks, DBS checks or ECRCs, whatever they are called, criminal record checks have become an integral part of many employment and recruitment procedures.

The object is laudable: to protect children and vulnerable people from coming into contact from those who are unsuitable to be among them. However, a decision of the Supreme Court at the end of July has exposed an interesting aspect of enhanced checks that many people did not realise and which raises interesting questions concerning our justice system and how mere involvement in a criminal process without any finding of wrongdoing can still result in a disclosure which can call into question the suitability of the individual concerned.

The case concerned someone known as “AR” (he cannot be named for legal reasons, a qualified teacher who was found not guilty of rape in 2011 after a Crown Court trial.

Although he was found not guilty, details of the allegation and the verdict were included in his criminal records certificate. Following hearings on 21 November 2017 and 23 April 2018, Lord Carnwath delivered the judgment of the Supreme Court. The respondents were the Chief Constable of Manchester Police and the Home Secretary.

In a report into the operation of the criminal records legislation, its author Sunita Mason pointed out that there was:

“…a degree of dissatisfaction with a system that has evolved with the laudable aim of protecting vulnerable people but is now viewed by some as intrusive and an unnecessary bar to employment. There is also concern that some people may be treated as ‘guilty until proven innocent'”

As a result of her report there were amendments to the legislation including a right to request a review.

Making a splash: Can a van driver be dismissed for soaking pedestrians?

 I regularly get asked: “how far does employment law go?” It seems an odd question to ask but I understand that most employers simply mean: “can you investigate nearly every type of poor behaviour” to which my answer is normally “yes!”

There has been a widely reported news story this week that largely explains my usual response. Namely, this concerns the story of a van driver who was immediately dismissed for driving through puddles and intentionally soaking pedestrians in Ottawa, Canada.

As with many situations involving professional drivers, the misconduct was caught via the dashcam of another vehicle. In this case, the vehicle in front had a ‘bootcam’ recording events behind the vehicle which recorded a 40 second clip of the van driver in question intentionally swerving into large puddles (which he could have easily and safely avoided) in order to soak three pedestrians in a row. As evidence goes, there is practically no other reasonable interpretation for the video (which remains available online). Naturally, the video was quickly viewed by nearly 1 million people and the matter was also referred to the Canadian Police. The employer concerned quickly announced that the individual had been dismissed and, in turn, the Police praised the employer for acting decisively and announced that they wouldn’t take any further action further to the loss of employment.

Now, obviously, the above-mentioned events occurred in Canada, so the real question is whether the same thing would happen over here, particularly given that employment law rights are viewed as being more favourable to employees on this side of the pond.