Jacob Rees-Mogg | HR experts explore legal risks behind MP's 'cowardly' notes to WFH staff

HR experts explore legal risks behind MP's 'cowardly' notes to WFH staff

HR experts have weighed in on the controversy surrounding Jacob Rees-Mogg's attempts to get staff back into the office full-time, highlighting the legal risks and detrimental impact on workforce morale caused by his actions.

The MP was branded everything from “condescending” to “infantile” and “cowardly” this week after leaving notes on civil servants’ desks in apparent efforts to stop them working from home.

As part of his campaign to wrench staff away from their home desks, the cabinet minister has been leaving printed notes on empty desks in the Cabinet Office department where he is based.

Adorned with an official government crest, the notes read: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.”

Not surprisingly, the notes have divided opinions, with Rees-Mogg's fellow party member and DCMS minister Nadine Dorries criticising the move.

“There’s a whiff of something Dickensian about it. Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren’t we measuring productivity?” she said.

‘Crass and condescending’

The notes have also caused a stir online.

Fiona Gifford, Director and High Performance Leadership Coach at The Performance Collective, said on LinkedIn: “...I am reflecting on the many ways such passive aggressive behaviour is often used with impunity in organisations.

“I can remember a c-suite executive who would stand near the lifts and call a cheery "good morning" to anyone who was late.

“Another manager who would put a toy monkey on the monitor of someone who had made a mistake.

“And, who can forget the exposee in the mid 2000s of the HBOS branch managers who awarded a cabbage to staff who did not meet their sales targets.

“Behaviour of this sort is infantile and cowardly; it indicates a complete lack of competence to have an adult and reasonable conversation with another human being.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents civil servants, said the notes were “the most crass, condescending act I’ve seen from a minister”.

“Ministers’ obsession with ending flexible working and micromanaging the civil service increasingly just looks vindictive” he said.

Elsewhere, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson told The Guardian that the Prime Minister “supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic working, adding: “We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings.”

Rees-Mogg's notes raise legal risks and ‘undermines employee confidence’

Such a high profile and controversial issue can provide key learnings for leaders within the HR function, particularly around how such acts as Rees-Mogg's could affect staff who are working remotely or hybrid.

James Tamm, Director of Legal Services at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest said: “Aside from it being quite demoralising from an employee relations perspective, this kind of behaviour could lead to legal problems too. Rees-Mogg appears to have taken a blanket approach of leaving these passive aggressive notes on the desk of every employee not in work. I presume he does not know the precise circumstances of every individual and why they are not there.

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"If an employee is working from home because of a medical condition which amounts to a disability under the Equality Act, these sorts of notes could amount to harassment given they could have the effect of violating the employee’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment to work within.”

Tamm added: “This sort of behaviour could also amount to conduct which undermines the relationship of trust and confidence between employer and employee. In response, the employee could chose to resign and claim constructive dismissal. However, this isn’t really an ideal solution for an employee and it would be surprising if anyone resorted to this in these particular circumstances.”

Is office working really better than remote?

Despite the MP’s beliefs that working from the office is the way forward, a brand new study has found that flexibility is the key to retaining top talent in 2022 and beyond.

Owl Labs, a global collaborative technology company, today launched its annual State of Hybrid Work study - polling 2,000 full-time employees across the UK. The study found that over a third (37%) of Brits say they are more productive working remotely, whilst a further 43% haven’t experienced a change in their level of productivity when working remotely. Interestingly, there is a gender divide with 40% of women stating that they are more productive working remotely compared to just 33% of men. Age is also a factor in productivity at home with 18-24 year olds report the least productive at home - only 26% of them stating they’re more productive working remotely.

The shift to flexible work takes thoughtful and purposeful planning, yet only 36% of employees believe that their managers received hybrid or remote management training. A further 16% believe they should receive more training in the future. Unsurprisingly, 30% of British office workers find building relationships with remote colleagues harder. As a result, 59% of managers (and 62% of executives) are more likely to ask the opinion or engage with those they physically work with over those that are remote.

Remote working can boost inclusivity

Data released earlier this year indicated that organisations that have committed to supporting remote work seem to be carving out more inclusive work experiences for staff members.

The latest analysis from Glint – which looked at aggregated data from millions of staff engagement surveys from over 600 global firms – found that staff members at remote work-friendly organisations were 14% more likely to say that they felt safe to speak their minds.

Elsewhere, nine per cent were more likely to state that their leaders value different perspectives, compared to peers in organisations that haven’t enabled remote work.

Glint’s study also highlighted that virtual work can create a range of opportunities that can help to strengthen feelings of inclusion among employees.

For example, the data stated that virtual ways of working can provide increased flexibility for those with caregiving responsibilities and bypass location bias among other things.

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Comments (1)

  • lee
    Tue, 26 Apr 2022 2:35pm BST
    They should be back at their desks! - where we see other civil service departments like the passport office and DVLA 6-7 months behind where they should be - its clear what has been going on - not a lot !. We have to live with this virus and people especially in the civil service and public sector have to get back to work to justify some of their crazy levels of pay/pensions too compared to private sector which they have now taken over on average - there is no reason why they should not be - Moggs notes are fine and they are lucky its not far stronger.

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