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Matthew Whelan

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Ask the expert: Employee’s wife harassing female staff

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The wife of a male manager has been harassing two female employees. Can HR do anything to stop this from happening? Matthew Whelan and Esther Smith advise.
 
 
 

The question

 
Two female staff have complained that they have received nasty calls and texts from their male manager’s wife, accusing them of sleeping with him, calling them various impolite names, and so on. They are both young (early to mid 20s) and very upset, and they both are adamant that they are NOT having an affair with their manager. 
 
He has their numbers in his mobile phone (and vice versa) partly because there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, and partly because staff are often required to visit clients, sometimes setting off straight from their homes, and so they need to be able to communicate.
 
I can, I assume, call him in and ask him what he knows, but I cannot really order him to control his wife or make a disciplinary matter of something he hasn’t actually done, can I?
 

Legal advice

 

Matthew Whelan, solicitor, Speechly Bircham

 
I suggest that you speak to the employees initially to get their agreement/consent to the approach that you intend to take. You can then speak to the manager involved, explain what has happened and ask him to speak to his wife. Hopefully that will resolve the situation.

Based on what you have said, it does not seem that at this stage there is a sound basis for taking disciplinary action against the manager. You can however explain to the manager that the employees’ telephone numbers are confidential and he should not have given his wife access to them, if this is the case. Of course whether disciplinary action is necessary or appropriate depends on the circumstances and it may be that there is a basis for taking such action in the future, depending on what happens.

As far as your obligations to the employees are concerned, you have a duty to take such steps as are reasonably necessary to protect the health and safety of your employees. This duty is relevant in this situation. I suggest that you take advice on what you should do to discharge this duty in these circumstances if the matter is not now resolved, including the extent to which you support the employees in any action they want to take personally. The employees can, for example, change their telephone numbers or possibly inform the police if they feel this is necessary.
 

Matthew Whelan can be contacted at [email protected]. For further information, please visit www.speechlys.com.
 
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Esther Smith, partner, Thomas Eggar

 
You can certainly discuss this issue with the male employee and explain the problem and ask him to take reasonable steps to prevent this from happening. You might suggest that, if having their numbers in his phone is causing the problem, that he removes them but keeps them written down somewhere so that they can be used if needed.
 
However, you are right that there is little you can do to stop the wife taking such action, and so long as he takes all reasonable steps required of him to try to prevent this happening, there is no ground for disciplinary action against him. That said, if the problem persists and becomes untenable you may have grounds to consider a possible termination on the basis of ‘some other substantial reason justifying dismissal’. Hopefully however it won’t come to that.
 
Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar’s Employment Law Unit. For further information, please visit www.thomaseggar.com.
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Thank you.