A select committee of MPs has called for a ban on ‘gagging clauses’ used by employers to silence allegations of unlawful discrimination and harassment
Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which were originally used to stop employees sharing company secrets if they changed jobs, are now being used unlawfully according to a report from MPs. Employers are routinely covering up discrimination and sexual harassment at work through NDAs, the report has warned.
It comes just weeks after the news that dozens of academics reported being ‘harassed’ out of their jobs and made to sign NDAs after raising complaints about discrimination, bullying and sexual misconduct.
The secret practice, which is becoming increasingly widespread, enables perpetrators to carry out mistreatment of employees, whilst preventing victims from discovering or supporting complaints from others.
The report comes from The Common’s Women and Equalities Select Committee, which launched an inquiry back in November 2018 due to ongoing concerns about the use of NDAs, following a 2018 report on sexual harassment in the workplace.
The report states that guidance from regulators must do more to highlight the responsibilities of lawyers, professionals and managers to report any concerns they have about issues with culture and discrimination to senior managers and boards. This includes any repeated or 'especially worrying' allegations of improper behaviour by a particular individual or in a particular business area.
We condemn the routine cover-up of allegations of unlawful discrimination and harassment in the workplace.— Women & Equalities Committee (@Commonswomequ) June 11, 2019
Read our report on non-disclosure agreements (#NDAs): https://t.co/KdqS7askbP pic.twitter.com/pCoRMvJoqF
The committee heard from more than 90 people about their own experiences of improper use of NDAs. These people included employers, employees, unions, human resources professionals, charities, employment lawyers, academics, regulators and professional bodies.
Mother-of-two from West Sussex, Hannah Martin, told MPs that she was forced to leave her job at an advertising agency after having a baby. In a separate interview, she told the BBC, “They said if I did not sign an NDA within 24 hours I would not get a payout.”
“NDAs are a bullying tactic that forces you into silence. I felt like I had no other choice but to sign. I felt like I was being abused.”
Martin added that, by signing an NDA, she not only lost her job and income, but also her self-confidence. “All the power is with the person with the money,” she said.
Maria Miller, chairwoman of the Women and Equalities committee, said NDAs were having a “destructive effect on people's lives” and how “worrying” it is that gagging clauses are being traded by employers for job references.
“After signing an NDA, many individuals find it difficult to work in the same sector again,” she said. “Some suffer emotional and psychological damage as a result of their experiences, which can affect their ability to work and move on.”
The Committee is now calling for the government to clarify the rules on confidentiality clauses and whistleblowing, and also to tackle the financial barriers that employees face when trying to take cases to employment tribunals. It has also renewed calls for the three-month time limit for tribunal cases about sexual harassment and discrimination to be doubled, as well as urging for new laws to be introduced so that NDAs cannot prevent people from sharing information that may support the claims of other victims.