It feels like a while since I randomly picked on some wild online disinformation about data protection, but when you get an itch, you gotta scratch, and this page of government guidance for businesses – “Get your business ready to employ staff: step by step” – specifically on “Personal data an employer can keep about an employee” certainly got me itching. It starts off sensibly enough by saying that
Employers must keep their employees’ personal data safe, secure and up to date.
This is true (Article 5(1)(f) and part of 5(1)(c) UK GDPR). And the page goes on to list some information can be “kept” (for which I charitably read “processed”) without employees’ permission, such as: name, address, date of birth, sex, education and qualifications, work experience, National Insurance number, tax code, emergency contact details, employment history with the organisation, employment terms and conditions, any accidents connected with work, any training taken, any disciplinary action. All pretty inoffensive, although I’m not sure what it’s trying to achieve. But then…oh my. Then, it says
Employers need their employees’ permission to keep certain types of ’sensitive’ data
We could stop there really, and snigger cruelly, Consent (aka “permission”) as a condition for processing personal data is complicated and quite frankly to be avoided if possible. It comes laden with quite strict requirements. The Information Commissioner puts it quite well
Consent is appropriate if you can offer people real choice and control over how you use their data, and want to build their trust and engagement. But if you cannot offer a genuine choice, consent is not appropriate. If you would still process the personal data without consent, asking for consent is misleading and inherently unfair…employers and other organisations in a position of power over individuals should avoid relying on consent unless they are confident they can demonstrate it is freely given
And let’s consider the categories of personal data the government page thinks employers should get “permission” to “keep”: race and ethnicity, religion, political membership or opinions, trade union membership, genetics [sic], biometrics, , health and medical conditions, sexual history or orientation.
But how quickly would an employer’s wheels grind to a halt if it couldn’t process personal data on an employee’s health “without her permission”? It would be unable to refer her to occupational health if she didn’t “permit” it. It would be unable to keep a record of her sickness absence if she withdrew her consent (consent should be as easy to withdraw as it is to give (see Article 7(3)). During the COVID pandemic, it would have been unable to keep a record of whether she had tested positive or not, if she said she didn’t want a record kept.
It’s nonsense, of course. There’s a whole range of gateways, plus a whole Schedule of the Data Protection Act 2018), which provide conditions for processing special categories of data without having to get someone’s consent. They include pressing social imperatives, like compliance with public health law, and promotion of equality of treatment and safeguarding of children or other vulnerable people. The conditions don’t apply across the board, but the point is that employees’ permission – their consent – is rarely, if ever, required when there is another compelling reason for processing their data.
I don’t really understand what need, what gap, the government page is trying to fill, but the guidance is pretty calamitous. And it is only likely to lead to confusion for business owners and employers, and runs the risk of pitting themselves against each other – with disputes arising – amidst the confusion.
Now, that felt better. Like I say, sometimes it’s good to scratch that itch.
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.