Confidentiality: Company secrets brought to book: Policy on employee use of corporate information remains disorganised and vague

IF AN employee writes a book about his or her work, is the information confidential or not? This may be one of the issues under discussion in the case of the City analyst Terry Smith, until last month head of research at stockbrokers UBS Phillips & Drew.

After his book on the accountancy practices of some companies hit the bookstalls, Smith was suspended. His employer said he 'didn't go through the normal internal procedure' to get clearance for the book, but Mr Smith contends he kept UBS fully informed of his progress and says the firm started to worry only when it received complaints from two clients who were featured in the book. UBS Phillips & Drew has issued writs against Smith for breach of contract, breach of copyright and 'passing off'.

Whatever the outcome of the case, says Olga Aikin, an employment law specialist, the issue of confidentiality at work remains one where many companies are, at best, disorganised - and, at worst, vague.

'There is a general duty of confidentiality implied by all contracts,' she says. This is based on 'the assumption that information obtained in the course of working for your employer is confidential. It ought to be set out in the contract, but it often isn't'

She adds, however, that companies often worry about the wrong thing. 'They may concentrate only on protecting information they see as confidential, yet an employee might write something about the basics of how the business is run, for example, which could be much more damaging.'

One of the issues to decide is the distinction between an employee's own base of knowledge and skills and the information gleaned from the job.

There is also the question of copyright. 'If someone is writing about their work, the copyright belongs to the employer,' says Aikin. 'If it's outside their work, it doesn't'

Although all companies are vulnerable to breaches of confidentiality, those with research establishments are at obvious risk. At ICI, contracts of all employees contain a clause saying they are 'bound to keep the company's secrets'. A spokesman conceded that the implications of this would depend on an individual's access to information. ICI employees with access to price-sensitive information sign a document each quarter - a month before the company's profits announcement - forbidding them from dealing in ICI shares for that month.

At Coopers & Lybrand, Ron Collard, partner for human resources, says: 'It would be wrong to say that breaches of confidentiality have never happened, but it is very rare.' New employees receive a handbook detailing how to protect client information - including a ban on discussing clients' affairs in public places. They are also given a briefcase, 'to make sure they put files inside and don't get on the Tube with the client's name glaring from documents'.

The difficulty for companies can be deciding what is confidential and what is not. Ultimately, the courts decide. 'Some companies stamp 'confidential' on everything,' said Ms Aikin. 'That could be judged to be over the top.'

If an employee decides to publish and be damned, what redress does the employer have? They can try to stop the book altogether if it is in breach of copyright or contract, or they can get an injunction to prevent further sale of the book or to call back existing copies. Ms Aikin said: 'It's practically impossible to get them back, but you may placate the client - which is what most companies are worried about.'

Sometimes, telling all is regarded as a duty. In a recent case, a woman claimed she could not carry on working for her company when she discovered that invoices she was processing contained false figures. She won her claim for constructive dismissal and was awarded more than pounds 8,000 by an industrial tribunal.

But as Olga Aikin points out, the knowledge that one has done his or her duty may be of scant help to someone faced with looking for another job.

'If the employee has acted in the public interest, there's no breach of contract nor of confidentiality. But all he can do is get some compensation for dismissal and there's no real yardstick for that. Obviously it doesn't leave the employee with much, and other employers would be wary.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick