Breakdowns in workplace relationships are always painful and can be particularly so when they are revealed in the press. However, as a High Court case showed, judges are always on hand to take emergency steps to ensure that current and former staff members abide by confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts.
The case concerned a professional firm whose director of business development and marketing had been dismissed on six months’ notice. His contract included a clause which forbade him from disclosing the firm’s confidential information, even after leaving its employ. On top of his contractual entitlements, he had been paid a substantial ex gratia sum by way of reminder of his obligations.
After receiving his final termination payment, the man expressed his dissatisfaction, saying that, given his age, his dismissal had effectively ended his career. He expressed an intention to speak to the press about the firm’s prevailing culture, particularly in relation to women in the workplace. He said that he would be demonstrating his impression of that culture by reference to three particular incidents.
In those circumstances, the firm made an emergency application to the Court, before proceedings had been formally issued. The Court was content to deal with the matter in the man’s absence on the basis that all reasonable steps had been taken to notify him of the application.
In granting an interim injunction against the man, the Court found it more likely than not that the firm would succeed in establishing at trial that there was a real risk that he would disclose information to the press in breach of the confidentiality clause. The firm’s grievance procedures were confidential and individual former colleagues to whom the man might refer in press interviews also had an expectation of privacy.
The Court acknowledged that there is a legitimate public interest in employers meeting their social and moral duties towards their staff. However, the existence of such an interest did not justify the indiscriminate disclosure of sensitive information which others have a legitimate interest in keeping confidential. A general desire to speak about the firm’s culture was not enough to justify such disclosures.
The interim order would be kept under review pending the trial of the action, and its terms, which referred to 11 specific categories of information, were designed to ensure the minimum necessary interference with the man’s human right to freedom of expression. He was also ordered to disclose to the firm the identity of journalists, media organisations or others to whom he had spoken with a view to publication and the nature of any information he had imparted to them.