Theft in the workplace: Actionable or a load of hot air?

This afternoon, I returned to my chilly office to discover that my desk heater was absent. After a quick root round, it became clear that someone had borrowed it for a meeting room yesterday and forgot to return it. The mystery was solved and I’m back to being blasted with lovely, soothing warm air once again!

However, the experience did serve as a reminder of the number of times over the years when employers have rang to obtain advice about thefts in the workplace. And, no, I don’t mean borrowing items and forgetting to return them, as in the much tamer world of Canter Levin and Berg but, rather, intending to steal items. Obviously, this can occur either against the Company’s property or between colleagues.

So, how can an employer turn up the heat in pursuing a potential thief?

A family (business) at war

If, like me, you have been enjoying Kay Mellor’s comedy drama Girlfriends on ITV, you may have cringed at some of the artistic licence deployed when dealing with aspects of the age discrimination claim being brought by Miranda Richardson’s character against her boss (and lover), played by Anthony Head. However, it has neatly highlighted the particular difficulties that can arise when workplace disputes get a bit too close to home.

A real life family dispute has been playing out in the Manchester Employment Tribunal and, more recently, in the Employment Appeal Tribunal. There is a major clue in the name of the case: Mrs J Feltham, B Feltham (Maintenance) Limited and Ms H Feltham v Feltham Management Limited, Mr D Feltham and Mr M Feltham. Feltham Management is a long established family business, specialising in property management, particularly in respect of student lettings. Jane Feltham is the claimant. She has three brothers, David, Martin and Stephen, all of whom were respondents in the Employment Tribunal claim. They all worked for the family business which was founded by their father. Hazel, the adult child of David, worked for the company as a clerical assistant and Jane’s husband was Mr Eckersall, a self-employed joiner who did work for the company.

In August 2013 it came to light that Mr Eckersall had been sending inappropriate texts and Facebook messages to his niece, Hazel. On the same day he told his wife, Jane, that he was leaving her because he had feelings for Hazel. Jane confronted Hazel, accusing her of inappropriate conduct, but she denied that she had done anything wrong. Jane’s brother David got involved and told Jane that if was her fault because she did not take Mr Eckersall’s name on marriage, did not respect him as head of the household and suggested that these (among other reasons) were why he wanted Hazel. Jane was upset and left work. She did not return.

With support from David, Hazel took over Jane’s duties as office manager. The company stopped paying Jane from the end of August, but she remained a director as well as continuing to receive benefits including a company car and credit card.

Compensation for post-termination losses, even though lawfully expelled from partnership

The status of professional partners in the context of employment law has exercised the courts on many occasions. Are they employees, workers, or employers or, in some cases, none of the above. Is there a difference between self-employed salaried partners and employed salaried partners? From an employment perspective, probably not. Of course, the employment rights available vary from none to most, depending on which type of employment status (if any) applies.

The same issue arises in the case of members of an LLP (or limited liability partnership), who are often referred to as partners. One such member was a solicitor who worked for Wilsons Solicitors LLP and whose claim was recently considered by the Court of Appeal.

Mr Wilson became a member of the LLP in May 2008. He held the post of managing partner, as well as being the firm’s COLP (Compliance Officer for Legal Practice) and COFA (Compliance Officer for Finance and Administration).

In July 2014 the board of the LLP received a complaint of bullying made against the senior partner, Mr Nisbet. Mr Wilson investigated the complaint, reported his findings to the board and produced a report on 7 October 2014. On 21 October the board was supposed to meet to discuss the report. However, a majority of the members refused to attend the meeting. Instead, the following month, they demanded that Mr Wilson should resign. They then voted to remove him from his post. They also removed him from the posts of COLP and COFA before he was able to submit his report.

In January 2015 Mr Wilson wrote to the other members and claimed that they had repudiated the terms of the members’ agreement by their actions and he accepted the repudiatory breaches. He gave one month’s notice of his intention to leave the membership of the LLP on the basis that their actions had made continued membership intolerable.