Breach of Confidentiality at work

Most employees during the course of their daily working activities have access to confidential company information and/or data.

Comprehensive terms and conditions of employment are not only legally required, but are important to enable employers to take appropriate action against employees whose conduct is in question. A breach of confidentiality would most certainly be a disciplinary matter and depending on the severity of the breach, could result in the termination of the employee’s employment.

Firstly, the employer has to consider whether the employee understands the rules and the seriousness of breaching confidential information/company data. Employee Handbooks including carefully drafted confidentiality and data protection policies ensure that employees are aware of the rules and understand the consequences if their conduct fails.

Prior to taking formal disciplinary action it is essential to carry out a full investigation in to the circumstances. The investigation should be conducted in a timely manner and may involve interviewing other employees to gather evidence. Witness statements should be obtained and any other information gathered relative to the case.

The outcome of the investigation will determine whether or not a formal disciplinary meeting is necessary. If there is insufficient evidence it may not be necessary to take formal action and there could be no case to answer. It may be that the employee has made a genuine mistake, leaked information unintentionally therefore employers may feel a letter in writing is more appropriate in these circumstances rather than formal action, to highlight the concerns to the employee. It is advisable to state at the same time that any repetition of the offence will lead to formal disciplinary action.

It is appropriate to go down the formal route where the investigation had proven that the breach is intentional. Depending on the severity, the employee may face allegations of gross misconduct where they may be suspended on full pay for a period of time whilst an investigation is completed.

The formal disciplinary procedure should be conducted in a timely manner, in line with your contractual procedures and a fair procedure should be followed. In basic terms, the employee is given advance warning of the meeting (normally 48 hours) and invited to attend a formal disciplinary meeting, where the evidence is presented to them and the employee has an opportunity to defend the allegations. The employer must ensure that the employee has had the opportunity to be represented by a work colleague or a trade union official.

The employer should never prejudge the outcome of the disciplinary but conclude the meeting and consider the minutes of the meeting. Consideration should be given to the implications of the breach on the employer and the severity of any financial loss or damage to the company’s reputation.

The decision and level of warning if appropriate will be decided and a warning issued, offering a right of appeal.

Breach of confidentiality can be described as an act of gross misconduct, so deal with issues that arise in a timely manner, in line with your procedures and look at any previous cases to ensure fairness and consistency.

For more information on how to deal with employees who leak company information, please contact our Advice Service on
0844 892 2772.