Data protection in disciplinary proceedings

Data protection in disciplinary proceedings

Do you need to tell employers about an arrest or charge?

This month the High Court has looked at the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 and their relevance in internal disciplinary proceedings.

Kathryn Hopkins v HMRC

In Kathryn Hopkins v HMRC, the employee was arrested in connection with various offences, including sexual offences and an offence which took place in a work vehicle. As required by her contract of employment, she told her manager about the arrest.

Sharing sensitive information with other departments

The manager then shared that information with various internal departments, including HR (in relation to pursuing disciplinary proceedings) and the press office (to manage any negative publicity). The employee was suspended pending a disciplinary process for gross misconduct.

The employee’s contract of employment included terms involving appropriate behaviour outside of work and conduct which could give rise to queries about honesty and trust.

Employer internal investigations and data protection

The employee went off on long term sick leave and refused to open or read correspondence from the employer. She said the internal investigation into the alleged offences was in breach of data protection laws and should stop.

Employee information and GDPR

The process was briefly halted but continued after the employer sought legal advice saying it could press on. The employee complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office and then brought claims in the High Court for, among other things, data protection breaches by the employer for ‘processing’ the information about her arrest both internally and externally.

When can an employer process special category personal data?

The High Court said the employer had a lawful basis for processing the special category data about the employee’s arrest when it suspended her and started disciplinary proceedings. The processing in question was necessary for the performance of her contract of employment and the employer had, as it was required to, an appropriate data protection policy in place to which the employee had access.

Lawfully processing of employee data

This case shows how data protection laws can be relevant in disciplinary proceedings and the sharing of information internally to facilitate that process. It is also a case which exemplifies the lengths to which an employee will go to avoid a disciplinary process.

The importance of data processing policies

Employers must ensure they follow the rules: an effective compliant data protection policy is vital here. Employers must also ensure they identify a lawful basis for processing (in this case it was necessary for the performance of the employment contract) and maintain appropriate records. But employers should not be cowed by an employee who adopts a scattergun approach to imagined legal breaches in a bid to avoid facing the music.

Chris Dobbs, Employment Solicitor says "This case is a reminder that data protection law is complicated and employers should be mindful that they are not necessarily in the right simply because they are investigating alleged misconduct. The processing of special category data requires careful management and an appropriate data protection policy in place as well as active compliance with that policy. However, this will come as something of a relief to employers who rely on external evidence such as arrests in enforcing contract terms about conduct outside of the workplace."

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