Is Downloading Confidential Work Documents On Personal Devices Grounds For Dismissal?

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Home > Blog > Is Downloading Confidential Work Documents On Personal Devices Grounds For Dismissal?

The increased use of and reliance on technology in most workplaces, coupled with more people working under flexible arrangements, including working from home, is providing employees with more opportunities to download confidential work documents on their personal devices.

Whilst organisations seek ways to protect their confidential files, sensitive information and valuable templates, they may also take measures against the misuse or mishandling of these documents, including termination of employment. However, workplaces should be careful not to take action against an employee if the conduct would not be deemed grounds for dismissal and could make the organisation vulnerable to an unfair dismissal claim.

Workplace policies

Most workplaces will have policies in place which deal with the download, transfer or plagiarism of sensitive documents, including examples of acceptable and unacceptable conduct, how employees may be in breach of the policies and disciplinary action that may be taken if the employee is found to have been misusing sensitive documents.

In an effort to protect information which is commercially sensitive, some organisations may even assert copyright over certain documents on top of having in place policies on confidentiality and prohibiting the download or dissemination of those documents. If an individual sends protected documents to their personal account they may be in breach of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).

Whether downloading confidential work documents onto personal devices is grounds for dismissal will depend on a range of factors.

Grounds for dismissal

As in all unfair dismissal claims, the facts of the matter will be assessed to determine whether the dismissal was a reasonable reaction or if the termination was a harsh and unjust punishment for the events which took place.

Previous cases indicate that misuse or misconduct relating to confidential documents does not automatically give grounds for dismissal, but in some cases where the conduct was considered to be intentional or substantial, the dismissed worker has not been successful in having their employment reinstated or winning compensation.

So, how are the different cases assessed? An instance of where two individuals may have carried out the same conduct but might receive different outcomes for an unfair dismissal claim is, for example, if an administrative employee were terminated for emailing themselves a copy of a template which had been produced by their employer and where a senior executive has been found to have downloaded and disseminated market sensitive information.

In these two hypothetical scenarios, the circumstances are not identical but are both similar in that both employees downloaded documents belonging to their organisations. The differences lie in the workers’ roles, level of seniority, experience and how often they deal with confidential and sensitive information in their roles. These are all factors which will be taken into consideration when determining if their terminations were fair or not. Whether or not the individual should have known better than to carry out the conduct will also be considered, as will their reason for their misuse of the document or information.

How can employers prevent confidential work documents from being misused or mishandled?

If policies on confidentiality and the misuse or mishandling of sensitive information are in place, employers should make them easily accessible to employees to reiterate their importance and avoid any misunderstandings on the issue.

Employers would be prudent to implement a policy which covers the topic of downloading confidential and proprietary documents as well as templates which have been developed in-house and belong to the organisation.

If you are an employer that is concerned about your employees downloading confidential documents and would like to prevent this from happening or commence appropriate disciplinary action against a staff member, Preston HR can help. Contact our experienced HR consultants in Cairns today.