Office espionage: What to do if someone is secretly recording your meetings

13 December 2016 -


When things get nasty at work, many people start secretly recording meetings. But don’t start frisking your staff just yet...

Mark Crail

You will remember the scene from countless gritty 1970s cop shows. Our hero, desperate for the confession that will put a drugs baron away for life, agrees to go undercover.

With a tape recorder the size of a paperback strapped to his chest and about 12 feet of cabling under his clothes, he meets up with Mr Big, microphone primed, because, for reasons best known to scriptwriters, merely catching someone in possession of a few kilos of crystal meth and a car boot full of semi-automatic weapons isn’t going to be enough to convince a New York jury.

Well, these days the recording device is probably about the size of a watch battery and all our hero has to worry about is their Bluetooth connection. But guess what? Thanks to the wonders of the iPhone (other smartphones are available), now we can all join in – and not just to catch crooks.

Put your phone anywhere within earshot, set the app running silently and a whole world of office-based espionage opens up. You might think that the employment relationship has pretty much broken down by the time someone is recording conversations with their colleagues and meetings with their manager.

But ask a room full of HR professionals how many of them have had to deal with this issue and just watch the hands go up.

It’s not that hard to understand people’s motives. The balance of power in the workplace has changed since the days when trade unions were ubiquitous and taking your shop steward along to a disciplinary meeting guaranteed at least a fair hearing.

Even in the absence of a functioning union, you can still take a friend – but lacking the same training or experience that a union rep built up over time, Jenny from accounts will not really inspire the same sense of caution in a manager intent on taking out their personal frustrations on the first poor sap who comes their way.

Equally understandable is the outraged reaction of HR professionals and line managers when faced with what is clearly the unspoken (perhaps spoken) threat that one word out of place will land them on the witness stand at an employment tribunal.

No wonder, too, that so many would simply say ‘no’ if an employee openly set the recorder running. So can employees do this?

Well, an employee certainly has no legal right to record an internal meeting. But, let’s be honest, it never looks good or adds to your credibility to wait until something comes to a head before banning it.

So, generally speaking, if you want to stop people recording meetings, the best plan is to get a clear written policy in place before the issue arises (pretty good advice for most subjects).

Even then, you might need to think about exceptions and alternatives. What if the employee claims they have a disability that means they need a recording to make sense of the meeting? Should you, as the employer, offer to make your own recording, or have a note-taker there and share the notes?

And what if you think the employee is going to go ahead and secretly record the meeting anyway?

Tempting though it might be to frisk them, that appears not to be a legitimate option under current UK employment law. That leaves you with a choice of ploughing on regardless, or putting things off until another day and hoping that your disgruntled employee gives up on the whole idea, or gets another job.

More than that, if someone has made a secret recording of stuff that goes on at work, whether it is part of a formal meeting or not, an employment tribunal might well think that the practice is a touch distasteful, but it is permitted to hold its nose and hear the evidence. And it will.

Indeed, in one case, an employee managed to go out of the room during a disciplinary hearing, leave their recorder running, and then use the resulting evidence in an employment tribunal claim.

Of course, it didn’t help that one member of the disciplinary panel revealed that the managing director had already decided to give the employee the boot.

Mark Crail is content director at XpertHR. Tweet him with your secret recording stories: @Payintelligence

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