PIDA Blog –Time to reform gagging clauses

Gagging clauses have become quite the talking point thanks partly due to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo era and countless other news stories exposing their misuse. Controversial debate around the use of gagging clauses, or NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and financial settlements to conceal sexual assault and harassment has tarnished the image of NDAs and highlighted their harmful impact of encouraging a culture of silence in cases of serious misconduct.

NDAs, sometimes referred to as confidentiality clauses or “gagging clauses” are written into a contract to stop information being disclosed. They serve a useful and legitimate role in employment contracts and settlement agreements. They protect commercially sensitive information and prevent employees sharing this information with their competitors.

However, there is increasing evidence these gagging clauses are being used unethically by some employers to intimidate whistleblowers, silence victims of harassment and discrimination, and conceal wrongdoing in the workplace.

But there are limitations to what can legally be ‘gagged’ by NDAs, which workers are often unaware of.

The current law on whistleblowing states any agreement which prevents a worker from whistleblowing, or making a protected disclosure is void ( s43J Public Interest Disclosure Act, PIDA, 1998,) but s43J has been hotly debated. NDA wording is often vague and contains no clear guidance as to how confidentiality clauses should be used and to what extent they should highlight the worker’s rights.

Protect has long been calling for NDA reform. A key ask in our Draft Whistleblowing Bill to reform PIDA is NDA reform. We want to see stronger and clearer wording to prevent the use of gagging clauses and a guarantee whistleblowers faced with a settlement agreement will get legal advice on any non-disclosure clauses.

A  Government Consultation March-April 2019 by BEIS  (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) concluded clauses being used to silence and intimidate victims of harassment and discrimination cannot be tolerated. Almost half (48%) of respondents had seen an example of a confidentiality clause that attempted to cloud a worker’s right to make a protected disclosure or overstretch the extent to which the information is confidential. The Consultation stated that it is important that workers understand their rights when they sign a confidentiality clause so they are not misled that they cannot disclose certain information. 83% of respondents agreed that confidentiality clauses should clearly highlight the disclosures that are not prohibited.

Protect suggested the following reforms to the law:

 

  • an exclusion in any NDA allowing for the disclosure of information about workplace harassment or discrimination to a regulator – not just the police – so wrongdoing that falls short of criminal conduct can be investigated and individuals held to account
  • improved advice for all employees: there is a very low awareness of employment rights around whistleblowing, as well as discrimination and harassment, and obscure wording around settlement agreements does not aid understanding• a standard document to be handed to all employees who sign a settlement agreement, explaining the limits of all confidentiality clauses in non-legalistic language

In our Draft Bill we address the lack of clarity of gagging clauses in settlement agreements by proposing clearer wording for s43J:

‘No agreement made before, during or after employment between an individual and an employer may preclude that individual from making a protected disclosure.’

Additional to this clearer wording is that any settlement agreement involving whistleblowing will have a clear statement saying that nothing in the agreement can stop the individual escalating the concerns, and certificate from an independent legal advisor explaining the requirements and limitations of the confidentiality clause.

We believe these provisions will make a whistleblower’s rights and responsibilities under a settlement agreement much clearer.

 

Blog written by Rhiannon Plimmer-Craig