Last week Treasure Island host, Matt Chisholm, announced that he had been “let go” from the programme and his employment with TVNZ. He said that he had been invited to control the narrative and say “I’ve decided to stand down from the role to spend more time with family”, or something similar, but that would be dishonest.
This is refreshing. In most cases I do not think people genuinely believe that employees choose to leave good jobs, with no alternative employment to go to, to spend time with family. Instead this is recognised code for I have been required to leave against my wishes and am trying to put a positive spin on it.
Frankly, the “spending time with family” yarn seems unimaginative and lazy. Surely there are better ways to frame an “involuntary departure”. For example, “the role I was employed to perform has changed substantially and is no longer challenging me” or “I have always wanted to study psychology and think now is the right time to take the plunge”.
There are a range of explanations that could be given to position an exit more favourably. However, the question is who gets to determine how the departure is framed?
The starting point is that an employer is not entitled to disclose personal information about an employee without their consent. So, in the absence of agreement between the employer and the departing employee, the employer can say nothing more than that they are no longer employed by the company.
An employee has more latitude to talk to the reasons for leaving their employment, subject to any confidentiality agreements they may have entered into. There may also be ramifications if they are dishonest and a future employer is misled by this.
So Matt Chisholm was perfectly entitled to say on social media that he had been “let go” and was not required to agree to spin it differently.
Employees are also able to express any personal views they may have about their previous employer provided they do not disclose confidential company information in doing so, or defame any person. Subject to this, if an employee has had a bad experience within a particular workplace, they can say so.
Whether they should is a different issue. Prospective employers are typically cautious about employing people who bag their previous employers, as this may tend to raise concerns about their judgement and loyalty.
However, there is an increasing movement towards people speaking out in certain contexts because it is the “right thing to do”. In particular, where an employee has left their employment as a result of being bullied or sexually harassed, they may feel compelled to share their experience in the hope that this prevents someone else from going through what they did.
In June this year a bill was introduced into the US Congress entitled the “Speak Out Act” which prevents employers from enforcing non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements in instances of reported sexual misconduct.
This sends a clear message to employers in the US that they should not seek to gag employees in these circumstances and is likely to be replicated in other jurisdictions in the wake of Me-Too.
There is clearly a place for confidential employment settlements, and they generally protect the reputations of both employer and employee parties. However, this needs to be balanced against the importance of transparency and of ensuring that bad employers can be called out.
And coming back to Matt Chisholm, there is no suggestion that there was anything untoward in his employment ending, or that TVNZ is a poor employer, but the example he has set is potentially a good one. My guess is that people will have far greater respect for his frank and honest statement than if he had tried to spin the reasons for his departure with some lame statement about spending time with family.
Finally, my own disclosure. I was on the very first Treasure Island that aired in New Zealand. The other contestants and I had no idea of what to expect and had been led to believe it may be some sort of adventure tourism show. In fact we were dumped on a deserted Island with little more than a bag of rice, two live chickens and a long drop. After a week of this I orchestrated my own departure and then told all. I think the media headline was something like “Week in Hell – I escaped Treasure Island”.