February 17, 2016

Your Employee Handbook – Friend or Foe?

How could you ever have unfairly dismissed someone that disclosed your clients’ confidential information on an internet blog?

Surely, you’re entitled to expect employees to respect your confidentiality provisions?

That’s exactly what recently happened to international bank Citigroup when they sacked Perry Stimpson for just such an offence.

Mr Stimpson was one of several London-based traders whom Citi fired in 2014 when the bank found itself at the centre of a costly controversy over how dealers handled sensitive client information.

The tribunal ruled he was unfairly dismissed. Mr Stimpson successfully argued that sharing confidential information with other traders online was commonplace. He said it was a “grey area” that if not specifically approved was known and routinely tolerated by his managers. Citigroup’s policies were out of date and not enforced.

At a stroke, their confidentiality provisions were compromised. If only they’d been using a Moorepay employee handbook – which would have made it explicitly clear the sorts of information regarded as confidential and it would also set out rules about “social networking”.

Similar cases are becoming more common

On the back of the Stimpson case, several other ex-employees sacked by banks over the Libor scandal are now in a queue of similar unfair dismissal claims. This demonstrates just how important it is that your rules and policies are clear and well communicated.

In a recent, key European judgement, the Court of Human Rights unusually came down on the side of an employer!

It confirmed an employer’s right to monitor employees’ activity in the workplace to ensure employment obligations were fulfilled. This was despite the potential intrusion into the principal of “privacy” which an employee can normally expect to enjoy.

The employer had a policy absolutely forbidding the use of its IT equipment for personal purposes. The employee still sent personal emails to various family members. His email was monitored, the offence discovered and he was sacked. He argued his right to a private life had been breached. The court, for once, disagreed.

Even if this may seem a draconian punishment, the employer had made their policy explicitly clear. The court confirmed that monitoring the employee’s work-related use of email did not infringe his right to a private life.

Define and communicate your rules clearly

This again demonstrates the importance of setting out and communicating your rules clearly.

Even when your employee handbook is explicit, it’s important to apply your rules consistently. The thorny issue of dress codes provides a useful example. Your male employees may argue having to wear a tie is discriminatory because female staff members don’t.

The reality, as confirmed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, is that it’s the standard of smartness you require that’s important. Both men and women must be subject to an equal standard of treatment but this doesn’t mean they have to wear the same clothes!

Here are six key checks to help you keep your employee handbook fit for purpose:

  • Does it contain specific references to the topics you consider most important – confidentiality, use of email and the internet, drugs and alcohol, dress and appearance etc?
  • Is it perfectly clear what behaviour you find acceptable and what you find unacceptable?
  • Have you communicated its contents to all your staff – including every new starter?
  • Is the version you’ve provided for staff the most recent one we’ve provided you with?
  • Do you always publicise the periodic changes we send you?
  • When you have to interpret content, are you consistent in your approach?

Your employment handbook is a vitally important business tool. If it’s relevant and up to date it can be your best friend. If content is irrelevant, obscure or out-of-date, it may become an absolute fiend. If you would like further help or advice on this topic, contact us. If you would like updates on the latest changes in legislation you can also download or subscribe to our monthly employment law guide.

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About the author

Mike Fitzsimmons

Mike is a Senior HR Consultant within the Moorepay Policy Team. He is responsible for the developing of employment documentation and is an Employment law advisor. With over 30 years of senior management and HR experience, Mike has managed teams of between 30 and 100 employees and is familiar with all the issues that employing people brings. He has also served as a non-executive director on the Boards of several social enterprises and undertook a five year tour of duty as Executive Chair of a £30+ million annual turnover Government agency.