The costs of Breaching Confidentiality
In an interesting case, a former employee of Channel Seven, Executive Assistant Amber Harrison has been ordered to pay Seven West Media’s legal costs after the company took her to court for breaching a confidentiality agreement.
This is a reminder to employers to ensure that you are clear on your obligations and expectations of employees, including your CEO! This means ensuring strong employment contracts, great HR policies and processes and excellent employee communication.
The case arose after a two year affair ended between Harrison had with CEO Tim Worner. Harrison went on to make a number of allegations against the CEO and SevenWest Media in industrial relations claims.
An independent review of the facts of the case by a legal firm, determined the CEO was clear of any of the allegations made by Harrison and concluded that the affair was “personal and consensual” yet inappropriate for a senior Executive.
It appears that Harrison had entered into confidentiality agreements (allegedly receiving $400,000 settlement) and decided to ignore them by using twitter to tell her story. Harrison appeared to become vindictive and started publishing confidential commercial documents to the public on twitter. This bizarrely erupted into a twitter battle of words with Jeff Kennett (former Premier of Victoria).
Seven’s barristers pursued Harrison in the Supreme Court for breaching confidentiality agreements she signed in 2014 to not release sensitive documents. They sought an injunction and permanent gagging order against Harrison.
In March, Harrison hired prominent barrister Julian Burnside QC in the continuing legal battle. Harrison claimed the media company contravened the Fair Work Act and breached her employment contract. She also filed an adverse action claim under the Fair Work Act.
Last week, Harrison revealed on Twitter that she would no longer fight the company and its gagging order and had dropped her legal team.
However, A NSW Supreme Court Justice described Harrison’s conduct as “unreasonable” and said she continued to run the case despite adverse preliminary findings, settlement offers and a complete absence of admissible evidence. “In relation to the question of costs, I think there should be an order that the defendant pay the costs on an indemnity basis,” he said. Harrison has now been ordered to pay the legal costs of SevenMedia in both court cases.
Seven has not disclosed the total costs as yet but it is likely be a six figure sum. Harrison stated she would be bankrupted by the order.
Lessons to be Learnt
- Senior Executives and managers need to be exceptionally cautious about entering into relationships with employees. Even if the relationship is deemed consensual and personal, the situation has significant potential ethical and legal issues as the Harrison case has shown.
- Be clear in your Company policies about expectations of employees around relationships at work. This is a very difficult area to manage. Many discrimination and harassment claims arise from relationships at work that break up and turn sour. It is worth ensuring in your Acceptable Behaviours training with managers and employees how you expect all parties to conduct themselves.
- A business should have clear confidentiality policies and communications with employees about what is considered confidential and possible implications of breaches of those confidentiality obligations and agreements.
- If an employee has signed a specific confidentiality agreement or deed of release. make it clear upon termination of employment that the confidentiality agreement stands beyond their employment.
- Always ensure any confidentiality agreements and conversations are managed with a HR professional. HR professionals are adept in managing delicate and difficult employee matters such as these.
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This article is intended to provide commentary and general information. It should not be relied upon as comprehensive or legal advice. Formal legal advice may be necessary in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this article. The HR Experts International is not responsible for the results of any actions taken on the basis of information in this article, nor for any error or omission in this article.