A report damning the use of non-disclosure agreements in discrimination cases has highlighted a 'cover-up' culture in many workplaces and urges the government to make changes to protect workers. We look at the rules, the possible changes – and how UK employers can minimise impact.
The Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) has published a report highlighting widespread use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in discrimination cases, especially sexual harassment cases, criticising the "cover-up culture" of many workplaces.
The WEC, which scrutinises the Government Equalities Office, said that unlawful discrimination and harassment are "routinely covered up by employers" via the use of NDAs, calling the practice "completely unacceptable".
Recommendations focus on a one-way cost shift to discourage the misuse of NDAs.
The powers of non-disclosure agreements
NDAs are often referred to as "confidentiality clauses". They are also, more casually, known as "gagging orders" or "hush agreements".
They're an important part of employment law, as they prevent employees (current and past) from revealing company secrets, ideas and so on. These NDAs are usually signed when an employee is hired.
But NDAs are also often used when disputes, such as sexual harassment claims or wrongful dismissal, are resolved outside of a tribunal hearing.
What exactly they can cover can be somewhat of a grey area. While they do not stop people reporting alleged illegal acts, such as theft or assault, they may stop people reporting bullying or harassment.
That said, the government is planning to bring in legislation to protect workers from NDA misuse – making sure they cannot be stopped from reporting harassment or discrimination.
The WEC report
The report comes after an inquiry into the use of NDAs in discrimination cases (link to employer defending claims page).
Recommendations to the Government included:
How will this impact employers?
What should employers do?
Some employers will be concerned about this report – discrimination claims are not easy to deal with, and the one-way cost shifting could be costly.
Others will see this as progress, rather than catastrophe. The WEC's recommendations of greater clarity surrounding whistleblowing legislation will leave less room for disastrous misunderstanding.
Either way, UK employers should note the way the wind is blowing. It's time to clarify internal policies regarding NDAs (link to handbooks/contracts page), and to begin providing plain-English explanations to employees wherever they are used.
It's also a good time to discuss which senior managers would oversee the policies and their implementation.