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Glassdoor legal issues: defamation and confidentiality in the digital space

Glassdoor legal issues | Arro Lawyers

On a recent flight home from Sydney to Melbourne, I had a very interesting conversation with a software designer.

While I don’t usually go out of my way to speak with my fellow passengers on domestic flights, this particular man captured my attention from the get-go. There was something about him that I found immediately fascinating – he seemed to radiate that unique confidence born of equal parts charisma and intellect that is so often the calling card of the entrepreneur.

As it turned out, my instinct was spot-on: he is the founder of a tech start-up business.  Naturally, the conversation turned to workplace law (being a passion of ours, as you know) and I quickly discovered that he had some distinctive insights into the difficulties he has faced as an employer in the digital space. Namely, loyalty and retention.

In less than 2 years of incorporation, this man’s company has been taken to the Fair Work Commission twice for unfair dismissal. Now, I have seen my fair share of ‘bad employers’ over the course of my career, and I can confidently say that he was not one of them.  So what went wrong?

Well, it’s a story that’s unfortunately all too familiar among start-ups. He simply wasn’t aware of the complex legislation surrounding employment law, and let’s be honest – can any of us really blame him? His focus was on pursuing his passion in software design, and on growing a business that can succeed in the ‘move fast and break things’ culture of the tech industry. The nitty-gritty of workplace laws was not something he had stopped to consider.

But here’s the thing – in the digital age there’s also more to consider than just the black and white of employment law as it has applied to businesses in previous decades.

And our conversation quickly moved down this path when he mentioned Glassdoor. As a result, we started chatting about Glassdoor legal issues that many users of the site may not have considered.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Glassdoor, it’s a website where employees (including ex-employees) can provide information and reviews about employers – good and bad. The purpose of the website is to provide authentic, transparent and valuable information to job seekers about salaries, interviews, benefits and general information including office culture. While Glassdoor do moderate content through analytical technology and human review, they do not generally edit, filter, alter or delete any content on the site unless the content includes malicious personal attacks or threats of violence.

As I’m sure you can imagine, while this is a fantastic resource for job seekers and can be great advertising for companies with positive reviews, there’s also a huge potential for damage to an employer’s reputation and for disclosure of confidential company information.

This may lead to a number of different legal issues. The first that comes to mind is an employee’s continuous obligation, regardless of termination, to maintain their employer’s confidential information. Could the disclosure of salary details on Glassdoor put an employee in breach of their contract? Well, it’s a very grey area (our favourite) as although the reviews are anonymous on the surface, there will be times where it is completely obvious who the employee is – particularly in a small business context.  Not only that, anybody who works in the digital space knows that there’s no such thing as true anonymity online if someone has the determination and technical know-how to break through it.

Bringing us back to my in-flight conversation, what would it have meant from an employment law standpoint if, after determining that his employees had disclosed salary information on Glassdoor, my entrepreneurial co-traveller had terminated the offenders’ contracts? Now, in reality that wasn’t the case in regards to his Fair Work Commission experiences, and for obvious reasons I won’t go into any details about those specific cases, but this hypothetical is great food for thought when it comes to digital law.

Transparency is great and we are big fans, but with transparency comes vulnerability and risk. We’re less excited about that. This site is a perfect example of how digital innovation and new technologies can breed new legal challenges for businesses. It’s also an example of why employers need to be on top of their game: not only do they need to minimize negative publicity and embrace positive or constructive feedback, they also need to consider potential legal implications of any actions they take in response.

Of course, we absolutely live and breathe this kind of stuff. And we’re more than happy to have a chat with anybody about how these 21st century legal challenges can be resolved.

Anyway, if you haven’t had a chance to look at Glassdoor yet, I would recommend you take the time to check it out. It’s not only useful for catching out cheeky employees, but it’s also a good way to see what other employers are doing to nurture employee satisfaction. You may also find positive comments from your own employees – it’s not all doom and gloom!

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