Home » Knowledge Hub » » Legal Speak – the dimensions of private workplace conversations

Legal Speak – the dimensions of private workplace conversations

30 October 2023

An illustration of dialogue and thoughts taking place among silhouettes of people in various positions.  The speech bubbles are yellow, pink, light blue, red and green.  The sole thought bubble is purple.  The bubbles are of varying sizes and shapes.  For example, the yellow one resembles a flag on a short flagpole, while the blue one resembles a round pin.  Some of the silhouetted people are touching their hands to their chins, and one is gesturing upward with his pointer finger.  Some of the silhouettes have their heads tilted slightly forward.

In light of  the David Walliams data breach case, Lorna Shuttleworth, Employment Solicitor, and Danielle Amor, Commercial Director at law firm Pannone Corporate, discuss what insights can be gleaned when confidential discussions enter the realm of public opinion.

In November 2022, longtime judge of Britain’s Got Talent, David Walliams, admitted to making “disrespectful comments” about two unsuccessful contestants, who appeared on the show more than two year earlier. The comments were reported in the Guardian, which claimed to have seen a “leaked transcript” of the remarks. Walliams left the show shortly after, following 10 years on the judging panel. At the time, he apologised for the comments saying, “These were private conversations and – like most conversations with friends – were never intended to be shared. Nevertheless, I am sorry.”

The dust appeared to have settled but, fast-forward nearly 12 months, Walliams has now filed a multi-million pound claim against the Britain’s Got Talent production company, Fremantle. Walliams is reportedly claiming that he is entitled to compensation for lost earnings and lost future earnings as a result of Fremantle’s data breach which seriously affected his mental health.

Walliams is clearly disgruntled that his comments were published and feels his reputation and livelihood have been tarnished as a result. However, he has limited options in terms of a legal claim against Fremantle. The leaked comments were not defamatory of him (he made them himself); he was not a Fremantle employee; and there is unlikely to have been a breach of contract.

Fremantle (or someone in its production crew) perhaps felt justified in disclosing that Walliams was not necessarily the “national treasure” character he portrays on screen. However, in the employment context, it can be very tricky managing a situation where information comes to light that causes you to see an employee differently. So what should you do?

  • Set the standards early on. Whilst the David Walliams case is exceptional, many employers face the issue of discovering conversations between colleagues which are not appropriate for the workplace. In the most extreme cases, derogatory comments made by one employee about another could result in a claim for harassment. The employer will be liable unless it can show it took all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct taking place. One such step is educating employees on what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace via policies and training, with managers reinforcing a culture where expectations are clear. Employees need to be aware that their conversations at work are not guaranteed to be private – even if they are speaking with a colleague in a WhatsApp chat, those messages may be disclosable in certain circumstances.
  • Consider how the information has been obtained. As an employer, you should not be “snooping” on your employees by checking their social media or monitoring their emails. Unless the information has been lawfully obtained, you should be very wary about taking action.
  • Is the information true? Making statements to a third party of information which is not true could lead to a claim for defamation. Check the veracity of the conversation before disclosing it to anyone else.
  • Comply with the GDPR. Assuming the information is true and would lead you to think differently of an employee, consider whether you can use that information to take action in accordance with the GDPR. For example, “criminal offence data” under the GDPR is subject to stricter requirements than ordinary personal data and you need additional justification to process that data.
  • Consider your employees’ wellbeing. Even if you are entitled to take action, consider how your actions will impact on the wellbeing of the employee concerned and the wider staff team. These matters should be handled sensitively to avoid negatively impacting individuals’ mental health.

In the “cancel culture” era, it is difficult to know where to draw the line. Public backlash can arise and you risk upsetting your workforce where action is taken or not taken, or taken too quickly or too slowly! Spent convictions and decade-old posts on social media clearly have to be put to one side, but it is so easy for a person’s private life to seep into the professional sphere and damage their professional reputation as well as future employment opportunities.

Walliams is a household name, so perhaps held to a higher standard than most; however, over the last few months we have seen senior figures step down from the likes of NatWest, BP, the CBI, the Pennine Care NHS Trust, UK Athletics and Tesco to name a few, over behaviour or comments seen as conflicting with their professional roles. Often, once the information is made public, events take over and the outcome is determined by the court of public opinion. As such, individuals need to be aware that ‘private’ conversations at work may not always remain private.




Latest Events

The Good That HR Does

At a time when HR is dealing with considerable stresses and strains, both in business and in the wider world, this webinar concentrates on the good HR delivers.
The good that HR does

Attract Top Talent: Master Social Media Recruitment for the Modern Workforce

The talent landscape is changing - Millennials and Gen Z now make up a growing majority. By 2025, 75% of the workforce globally will be Millennials. Are you planning your Employer Branding priorities with them in mind?
Master Social Media Recruitment for the Modern Workforce

Spring Networking Event

In the surroundings of the National Treasures: Constable in Bristol “Truth to Nature” exhibition, we’re hosting a free drinks and networking opportunity for you to meet and connect with business leaders and colleagues.
spring networking event hrw

May 2024 – Employee Benefits: How to Stop Wasting Money

Are you throwing money at employee benefits or a health and wellbeing programme that aren't appreciated?
employee benefits how to stop wasting money

June 2024 – All Promises? Is AI the Answer to your HR and L&D challenges?

The impact of AI on the workplace and working life in general has been the subject of much speculation, but what of the impact on HR itself? With the ability to offer key data for HR streamline work processes, AI could be the answer hard-pressed HR professionals are looking for.
all promises is ai the answer

May 2024 – Equality, Diversity, Inclusion: Put your money where your mouth is

Is EDI still a vital part of every business' agenda and what good does it deliver for HR?
equality, diversity, inclusion webinar

AI in the Workplace, The Potential, The Pitfalls and The Risks

In recent years, advancements in AI technologies have surged, permeating nearly every industry and facet of our lives. From automating routine tasks to augmenting human decision-making, AI holds the promise of revolutionising productivity, efficiency, and creativity in the workplace.
AI in the Workplace

Apr 2024 – Reward and Recognition – is that the best you can do?

What are the standard ways HR should be seeking to reward and recognise its employees - and what are the more innovative ways?

Mar 2024 – Leveraging Digital Learning Tools: Empowering HR Teams for Success

In today's fast-paced business landscape, the role of HR teams is evolving rapidly. To stay competitive and foster organisational growth, companies must leverage effective learning programs strategically.

Mar 2024 – The Efficiency Programme: How HR can maximise technology benefits

There are huge promises and potential for the use of AI and technology in HR and in this session we discuss the best way ahead for HR for technology and AI use.

Effective Resourcing Models & How We Guarantee the Integrity of Inclusive Recruitment Regardless of Approach

A opportunity to debate how can we adopt a cohesive inclusive approach that enhances the candidate experience without creating barriers between us and the talent essential to your organisational success.
15 may 2024 sanderson effective resourcing models

Feb 2024 – It’s All HR’s Fault

Despite being a trusted voice in the C-suite, HR is still viewed with distrust and outright disdain by many employees – the very people HR is there to support.
Its all HRs Fault On demand Webinar

Jan 2024 – Health and Wellbeing: Making it Personal

If you’re investing in a health and wellbeing strategy, you want to make sure it meets the needs of your workforce.

Dec 2023 – Year in Review 2023

In this webinar we brought back some of our previous 2023 webinar speakers who gave their view on the past 12 months.

Nov 2023 – Reward and Recognition for the International Workforce

In this webinar we explored the dispersed workplace and asked what it means to support employees all over the world.
Reward and Recognition for the International Workforce

Streamlining Year-End HR Operations

Providing seasonal support, ideas and inspiration, this webinar covered the challenges and opportunities presented to HR professionals at this time of year.
Streamlining year-end HR operations

The HR World Autumn/Winter Networking Drinks 2023

At this exclusive evening senior HR leaders were able to meet their contemporaries, talk to other HR thought leaders and experts and access The HR World’s unique network of game-changers and decision-makers.

Compensation Planning – The key to a motivated and satisfied workforce

Compensation and reward strategies have changed radically over the past few years with the impact of the pandemic and the trends that followed.
Compensation Planning - The key to a motivated and satisfied workforce

Oct 2023 – Talent Acquisition: Why your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is more important than ever

This webinar addressing talent acquisition majored on the Employee Value Proposition (EVP).
Talent Acquisition – Why your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is more important than ever

Resourcing Models, Insource, Outsource or Hybrid what are the best solutions?

Discussions on the evening were led by two invited experts Jim Richardson, with spells at Santander and Royal Bank of Scotland as Global Head of Talent, Jim now advises corporate businesses on their TA models, and, Ross Crook, Managing Director at Sanderson Solutions.
Resourcing models round table

Sep 2023 – Retention: Holding on to The Talent You Need

The post-pandemic workforce now presents more of a challenge in terms of feeling satisfied and content in the workplace. This webinar on retention also provided a masterclass on employee engagement.
Retention holding on to the talent you need

Aug 2023 – Professional Development: Making the Step Up

What does it take to be an HR Director, or to take a position at Board level? This webinar looked at professional development for HR leaders.
What does it take to be an HR Director?

Jul 2023 – Employee Benefits: Then, now and next

The importance and value of giving employees choice on rewards and recognition.
Employee benefits, then now and next.

Jun 2023 – HR Data: The Key To Delivering Real Value

This webinar on HR Data brought home the importance of understanding the value of people data not just to HR but to the business as a whole.
HR on demand event - HR data: the key to delivering real value

RPO Market – Insource, Outsource or Hybrid: What are the best solutions?

The HR World and Sanderson Managed Services Ltd held an exclusive Round Table dinner to explore and debate the current RPO arena.

AI as part of the hiring, on-boarding and retention processes

The HR World and Sanderson Managed Services Ltd held an exclusive Round Table dinner to further the discussion of AI among Senior HR Leaders.

May 2023 – AI in HR: The Perfect Balance

AI is hitting the headlines right now as experts forecast a future that’s powered by tech. But what will this mean for HR?
On demand hr webinar - Ai in HR

Apr 2023 – HR Tech: Ensuring your technology delivers for all your people

Technology continues to throw challenges at the HR function as the speed of change increases and new technology (anyone noticed something called AI?) enters the arena.
HR tech on demand webinar with Sympa

Mar 2023 – Equality, diversity, and inclusion: Reshaping thinking for action

In this webinar we explored how ED&I can have a real impact for businesses. At the centre of the discussion was the idea of changing thinking in order to make things happen.
Equality, diversity, and inclusion: Reshaping thinking for action

Feb 2023 – Leading With Agility: How to give your business the behaviours and mindsets it needs for volatile times

This webinar took as its focus agility and how businesses can develop and maintain these skills among its workforce.
This webinar took as its focus agility and how businesses can develop and maintain these skills among its workforce.

Jan 2023 – How can you create a culture of health and wellbeing in the workplace?

This webinar tackled the important and timely issue of creating a health and wellbeing culture in the workplace.
How can you create a culture of health and wellbeing in the workplace?

Bridging the gap: what can employers learn about emerging talent to drive better hiring strategies?

Join us at this cross-learning, in-person event as part of The HR World Culture Clash series, bringing HRDs, founders and emerging talent together to build a better workforce for the future.
Bridging the gap: what can employers learn about emerging talent to drive better hiring strategies?
HRW Membership@2x@2x

Are you a senior HR professional?

Join our membership to shape the future of work, get exclusive access to events, white papers and research content, profile your work, gain access to support from HR experts and celebrate your successes.

Become a Partner

Please get in touch to talk about how we can help your business make an impact in the world of work through our content marketing, partnership plans and advertising.