Employees asked to sign a confidentiality agreement should get a solicitor to help them understand precisely what they are agreeing to and what their rights are, the Law Society has said in a guide designed to inform the public about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
The leaflet outlines what employees need to know or do if they are asked to sign an NDA by their employer. It will be made available to the public through organisations such as Citizens Advice. Firms will be able to give them to potential clients.
The leaflet highlights the reasons why employees might be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement or why confidentiality clauses appear in settlement agreements. 'As confidentiality agreements place legal restrictions on you, it is best to get independent legal advice before signing them. You can find a solicitor who will advise you on whether you should sign the agreement being offered and what it should contain,' the leaflet says.
'Employers may provide funds to workers to get independent legal advice as it is in their interests that you fully understand what you are agreeing to. If after signing a confidentiality agreement you are unhappy with the terms, contact a solicitor to see what your options are.'
The leaflet makes clear that a confidentiality agreement cannot lawfully restrict an employee from talking to the police or a regulator.
I. Stephanie Boyce, deputy vice president of the Society, said: 'The legal profession has a responsibility to educate the public on complex and sometimes controversial aspects of the law. There are many legitimate reasons why employers and workers may want to enter into confidentiality agreements. They allow parties to resolve a dispute confidentially without going to a tribunal or court.
'However the emergence of high-profile cases, often involving sexual harassment claims, has led to legitimate fears of misuse. There is a disparity of power between employers and employees that can be abused. Unfortunately this has led to a myriad of misconceptions.
'For example, a confidentiality clause cannot stop you from reporting a crime to the police. Nor can it be used to prevent whistleblowing in the public interest. This initiative seeks to equip members of the public with the awareness, knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice when the time comes.'
The Society is currently reviewing its NDA guidance following a call from the House of Commons women and equalities committee, which published a hard-hitting report on NDAs in discrimination cases in June.
Boyce said: 'We have revisited our work following the committee's report and will be updating our practice note after the release of the updated Solicitors Regulation Authority warning notice and EHRC [Equality and Human Rights Commission] guidance - expected at the end of the year.'