Two company executives who were sacked over a ‘laddy’ WhatsApp group that shared explicit images and crude jokes about female colleagues have sued their former employer for £300,000 – The Sun reports.
Former bosses Paul Wells and Roberto Solari say that they were unfairly dismissed after the messages were discovered when another employee handed in their old work phone.
Wells and Solari deny any misconduct and claim that the reason for their dismissal was to deprive them of the company shares that they estimate to be worth at least £150,000 each.
Despite this, bosses at Cathay Investments 2 Ltd - who the Evening Standard report was formerly PNC before it was bought out - stand by their decision for sacking them on the basis of “gross misconduct”.
Edward Levery, Barrister for the company said: "Many of the messages were sent during the course of ordinary business hours.
"The members of the group were accustomed to sending each other crude, offensive sexist and pornographic messages.
"Not only did the members of the group make offensive and sexist comments about women in general, but some of their offensive remarks were directed at certain specific female employees of PNC.
"The female employees who were being discussed on the group were not aware of what was being said about them behind their backs but...if they had known, the women in question would have been horrified.
"The defendants allege that, by being members of the group, Mr Wells and Mr Solari breached their duty not to engage in behaviour which could or tended to undermine a positive and harmonious working environment and created or encouraged a working environment which was hostile, degrading or offensive for other employees."
However, the pair told the London High Court that the inappropriate messages stopped after the new owners bought out the company. Wells added:
“The office was a very blokey laddish office. There was some bad language in the office and a few people pranked each other.”
“I’m not saying these videos were right, but they were just sent for amusement. This was just a lads’ group. We wouldn’t talk like that in the office.”
The hearing continues.
This case highlights several HR issues.
WhatsApp groups causing HR havoc
Earlier this year, research from Speakap revealed that frontline employees have admitted to using social messaging tools like WhatsApp up to six times throughout the working day. Additionally, the study unearthed that a further 16% stated that their company’s HR department was unaware of such activity.
From a legal point of view, EU GDPR rules came into effect last year to eradicate the use of unauthorised messaging services at work. Deutsche Bank for one banned the use of WhatsApp and Snapchat on its premises as a result of the severe information regulation compliances that the company upholds. Using social messaging services like WhatsApp to share work-related files could result in a data breach if the information is leaked and gets into the wrong hands, too.
Using work phones for personal activity
If an employer issues a phone solely for work purposes, then they are entitled to check phone logs or recordings of phone calls, look at emails and see which websites are being accessed according to Citizens Advice. In this instance, the messages were exchanged on work phones which were clearly checked when another employee handed in their old work phone. To avoid any surprises on either part, employers should have a code of conduct in place that is communicated to the workforce early on.
Doing personal things on company time
In this case, Solari was accused of using gambling and porn websites on company time on a work laptop. While some bosses may be lenient at letting employees take the odd personal phone call during work time, internet activities like the above are unacceptable. According to a 2018 study from Office Team, the average employee spends almost an hour per day using their phone for non-work activity, which constitutes to five hours per working week.
Some of the messages ‘joke’ about female colleagues including a woman known in court as “D”. The pair made inappropriate comments about her and likened her to explicit video content. While Levey explained that the comments made about the women in the group chat were made behind their backs, he explained that “if they had known, the women in question would have been horrified.”