The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) ordered Emuse Technologies to pay compensation to its former human resources manager, Lorraine Fitzpatrick, after it ruled she had been unfairly dismissed. The company claimed that, during an extremely sensitive time for the company, Ms Fitzpatrick had passed on information about financial issues of the company and the redundancies of two employees to another co-worker in the course of a general conversation. The company argued that such behaviour was wholly inappropriate by a senior employee working in human resources and amounted to a “gross breach of trust” by sharing sensitive information with members of staff.
However, the Tribunal found that Ms Fitzpatrick did not release sensitive information about pending redundancies and her conversation had amounted only to “idle chitchat”. It was noted by the Tribunal that the conversation was part of a general discussion about the economy. The Tribunal awarded Ms Fitzpatrick €148,000 which the Tribunal felt was “just and equitable having regard to all the circumstances”.
Most employment contracts, particularly those of more senior employees, contain a provision restricting employees from disseminating confidential information. Further, such contracts normally contain a definition as to what constitutes confidential information. In addition, even if an employment contract does not contain an express term dealing with confidential information, all employees have an implied duty of trust and confidence to their employer, not to divulge information which is of a confidential nature.
Ms. Fitzpatrick did not have an express clause in her employment contract obliging her to maintain the confidentiality of information which she acquired during its term and the employer in this case had no alternative but to assert that Ms. Fitzpatrick owed it an implied duty of fidelity.
However, this case demonstrates that information which an employer deems to be confidential will not always be treated as such by a third party. In addition, an employer’s confidential information must be of such a nature that attracts the protection of the implied terms or that it has the status of a trade secret and as such is protected.
In assessing whether certain information is covered by any express or implied term of confidentiality, criteria which may be considered include the nature of the employment, the specific information itself and whether the employer impressed on the employee the confidentiality of the information. Clearly, in this case, the EAT determined that the type of information disseminated by Ms. Fitzpatrick was not the type of information that would be deemed to be confidential.