In brief - Make sure you protect your company's funds and confidential information

As a business owner, you want to nurture a staff team that is open, trustworthy and reliable. However, it is also important to have systems which safeguard your business. In particular, as your business grows, it is worth giving careful thought to how funds and confidential information are being managed and circulated among your personnel.

Make sure departing employees don't take your business with them

In the past year, we have worked with a number of businesses which had to seek legal advice because of matters related to their own employees. This includes:

• Making an interlocutory injunction application in court against a newly established business and ex-employees of our client to restrain them from using and disclosing our client's confidential information (possessed without consent) and approaching our client's customers

• Advising a business on remedies available after losing substantial funds, siphoned out by its own employee

• Addressing concerns of potential loss and exposure of confidential information and intellectual know-how to competitors after departure of employees

These scenarios revolve around two aspects - company funds and confidential information (which includes customer information, financials, business plans and intellectual property). Such situations can create undesirable stress for any business owner and also impinge negatively on the company's operations and morale, translating into lost time and revenue.

Implementing safeguards without being tyrannical

Obviously, not all employees are dishonest. However, in order to reduce the risk of loss to your business, you can implement some simple safeguards.

The ideal is to mitigate risks without being overbearing or tyrannical towards your employees. The challenge is to cultivate a positive work environment, striking a balance between building relationships with staff and implementing safeguards in a prudent and sensitive manner.

Here are some processes that can be implemented in the early stages of a business.

Clear role descriptions to promote accountability

It is not uncommon to have employees juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities. Spell out those responsibilities and roles to avoid uncertainty, so that tasks are performed by the appropriately authorised person. This will hopefully avoid unwanted variations of roles and promote accountability. It also inspires confidence and certainty when employees understand their role within the organisation.

Employment agreements and policies to protect confidential information

Rather than just being a strict list of things not to do, employment agreements and policies can be a helpful tool to guide and inform employees (and employers) of their duties. Employment agreements and policies should detail employer and employee obligations. They should address the employee's ongoing duty to protect confidential information and applicable restraints.

Implementing simple and sensible protocols

In addition to introducing agreements and policies in writing, you should consider introducing simple protocols that can be implemented in the day to day routine of the business without too much difficulty. For example, whenever a cheque is to be rendered from an office account, it should be a requirement that the cheque is sighted and signed off by two directors or owners, or an owner and an authorised senior executive.

Protecting data through vigilance and selective access

Re-examine how data is being stored and shared. Technology today has made it very easy to store and disseminate information both internally and externally. This means you need a higher level of vigilance to manage and protect your confidential information.

Consider assigning access to specific employees as required. For example, not every employee necessarily requires access to all information pertaining to finances or business plans.

Reliable email systems and remote access

You should ensure that all business related communication is done through your own email system. Set up a reliable email system and ensure that you have the means to address system breakdowns immediately to avoid employees having to resort to using an alternative email address.

Finally, going on vacation is always warranted and well deserved by busy business owners. However, it is also worth having remote access to office emails to check on communication during your absence.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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