Friday, 20 December 2013

Fit and sexy remarks are costly

Company bosses must give staff the opportunity to make confidential complaints if they feel they are being harassed in the workplace, a legal expert has warned.

John Mehtam, our employment law specialist, highlighted a high-profile case involving 22-year-old Elizabeth Cowhig, who worked at a call centre for Liverpool-based electronics firm Digital Maintenance Ltd.

Line manager Owen Kennard, told Elizabeth she had ‘the best legs’ of all his staff, made inappropriate remarks about her being ‘fit’ and ‘sexy’, and at one point asked her to spend the night with him in a luxury hotel.

Shortly after trying to report the issue to the managing director, she was reprimanded, and then sacked without explanation. A tribunal awarded her £13,000 in compensation for sexual harassment.

John said: “Elizabeth could not claim for unfair dismissal because she did not meet the required length of service. But the right not to be sexually harassed at work kicks in immediately. It seems that where the company went wrong in this case was failing to provide employees with a proper facility to make a confidential complaint.

“Having a robust ‘dignity at work’ policy is not enough. Staff should be able to contact directors or proprietors personally if they wish to complain about unlawful treatment.

“By giving them the opportunity to make a direct report by a letter or e-mail marked as a confidential HR matter, an employer is seen to be taking all reasonable steps to prevent such instances occurring.”

John said: “When harassment or any kind of discrimination is alleged, the buck does not stop with the company; it’s the directors who can be held personally liable. By allowing employees to make a direct report, they cannot ever claim that their door was not open.

“Just because comments are dismissed as office banter, they cannot be ignored if the person involved is upset by them and directors must ensure they take any complaints very seriously.”

Meetings on the move

Motorway service stations aren’t just being used to break up long family journeys – they’re becoming popular options for business meetings.

Many sites are even setting aside designated private meeting rooms for corporate customers keen to escape the ‘coffee shop chaos’ of a bustling town centre.

“Finding a suitable spot to meet clients while on the move can be tricky, and there are some obvious advantages to using a motorway service station,” said Graham Davies, our senior partner.

“For starters, they are easy to find, and free parking is plentiful, in contrast to a town centre location where you often waste time trying to find a parking space, and end up clock-watching in a coffee shop instead of focusing on the business at hand.

“The negative is that there is a cost, of course, but since this is a new departure for many service stations, they are still relatively cheap. For example, Moto currently offers a meeting room for £30 for half a day, while others rent space at around £8 an hour.”

Midlands service stations hiring out meeting facilities include Cherwell Valley on the M40, and Donington Park on the M10, while free wi-fi is available at the M54 services near Shifnal.

Graham said: “At the moment, facilities for business meetings do vary from one service station to the next, but in some locations, there are even hot desks. So if your phone is out of power or you’re desperate to pick up or send an e-mail, make an urgent call, print or fax some kind of official document, the nearest motorway service station might have exactly what you need.”

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Talk it through to save penalties

Companies that refuse to consider mediation as a way of solving disputes could pay a stiff penalty if the case reaches court, according to one of our legal experts.

Andrew Oranjuik’s comments follow a landmark Court of Appeal ruling which presented a London commercial property tenant with a sky-high legal bill.

The landlord, PGF, was seeking more than £1 million in damages from its former tenant, OMFS, over the alleged disrepair of three office floors in a building on London’s Lombard Street. It had invited OMFS to mediate on two separate occasions, but been met with silence, and appeal court judge Lord Justice Briggs said a lack of response in the face of such an invitation was “unreasonable”.

Andrew, who is from our commercial team, said: “As a result of this, OMFS  was not allowed to recover a substantial proportion of its costs which it would otherwise have recovered. So the message is clear. If you are in a dispute, you can expect to be penalised if the idea of mediation has not been at least considered.”

He said: “Although not every case is suited to mediation, our experience is that it is very often an effective method of resolving disputes much quicker and cheaper than fighting in the courtroom to the bitter end.”

Mediation has been a popular alternative to court proceedings for 10 or 15 years when it comes to resolving commercial disputes. It involves both parties attending a session with a neutral third party, in an attempt to negotiate an out-of-court settlement.

“The Court of Appeal’s decision in the PGF case reiterates the importance of being prepared to consider the option of mediation. Although courts do not have the power to compel businesses to go down this route, the potential and costly consequences for a party that fails to engage in the process are now crystal clear. Failure to consider mediation could land a company with a significant bill which could have been so easily avoided.”

Plan now for new maternity rules

Businesses are being urged to start preparing for major changes to maternity leave rules, which could soon have significant impact on staff working patterns.

Under new Government proposals, mothers and fathers will soon be able to share the statutory maternity leave and pay entitlements.

“Eligible mothers and their partners will be entitled to be absent from work for up to 52 weeks to care for a newborn child, and take up to 39 weeks of shared maternity pay,” said our employment law specialist John Mehtam.

“Parents can choose to be at home together, or to work at different times and share the care of their child by taking the maternity leave in turns. If businesses embrace the changes, they can also benefit from being able to have more open discussions about patterns of leave with their employees.”

John, who leads our employment law team  in Telford and Wolverhampton, said it was important for companies to digest the personnel implications of the plans long before they are due to come into effect in 2015.

“Employers will not be obliged to agree to the leave pattern proposed by their staff, and employees will have to give at least eight weeks’ notice of their intentions to opt into the scheme. This is important, because there is a danger that the system could otherwise become complex and costly for companies to administer, and impact on productivity.

“The proposals are part of the Government’s pledge to support working families, so women do not feel they have to choose between having a successful career or having a baby. There is no doubt that, if the plans are given the go-ahead, parents will have much more flexibility to choose how they share care for their child in the first year after birth.”

He said: “Companies should not just look at this as an administrative headache. When worked correctly, employers can also gain from a system which allows them to keep talented women they may otherwise have lost.”

The proposals for shared parental leave and flexible working are included in the Children and Families Bill 2013 which is currently going through Parliament.

“The number of times a parent can notify their employer they want to take a period of shared parental leave will be limited to three. This is a sensible move; it balances the need for parents to use the leave flexibly against the uncertainty an employer may experience from unlimited changes.”

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Online risks of social media

Social media networking has rapidly become a crucial tool for thriving businesses, but many could be breaking the law just by using it.

Our senior partner Graham Davies said many companies were now engaging with their customers through all kinds of methods including Twitter and Facebook.

“In years gone by, a listing in the Yellow Pages or a local business directory was the way to go, but increasingly social media is becoming a tool that cannot be ignored. The trouble is that some businesses may not realise that data protection laws apply to social media just as they do to more traditional forms of communication.”

Graham said as well as interacting with customers on social media, some businesses also ran a company blog or a forum linked to their website.

“The Information Commissioner’s Office has warned that many companies could be breaching the Data Protection Act 1998 with their online activities. It has said companies should take just as much care with their efforts in the virtual world as they do with other methods of promotion, and the office is now paying close attention to what’s happening online.”

Graham said formal guidelines had been published by the ICO and that company bosses should ensure they followed them to the letter.

“Equally companies should be very cautious about approaching customers and potential customers with direct marketing. Whether you’re making a telephone call, sending a text message or an email, all these sales methods are covered by the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

“There are strict rules about having the customer’s permission to send them information like this – and just because they’ve agreed to receive phone calls from you, you can’t then simply email them aswell with your latest offers.

“They must have specifically agreed to receive your information in their chosen form and one permission doesn’t automatically open the flood gates for you to bombard them with all your promotional merchandise. Bear in mind too, that the ICO can impose fines of up to £500,000 if you send unwanted email marketing messages, so it really does make sense to familiarise yourself with the finer details of the rules before you start a new campaign.”