Spying on staff now common says lawyer

THE use of private investigators by employers to spy on staff suspected of fraud is not uncommon, lawyers have claimed, following the case of a Yorkshire fire service worker who discovered a tracker device on her car.

The Yorkshire Post reported yesterday that Anthea Orchard, a call handler with West Yorkshire Fire Service, was spied on by private investigators looking into claims she was moonlighting while on sick leave.

She was shocked that bosses ordered the surveillance but they had denied having any knowledge of the tracking device. She slammed the surveillance as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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Yesterday lawyers familiar with similar cases said the use of the tracking device could be viewed as “overstepping the mark” but that surveillance and private investigators were within the law.

Employment lawyer Paul Ball said the use of private investigators to investigate potentially fraudulent activity by employees was reasonably commonplace.

Mr Ball, head of employment law at Leeds solicitors 3volution LLP, said in his experience it was more common within the private sector than the public sector.

He said that employers who suspect an employee of lying about their ability to attend work were within their rights to make “reasonable inquiries” to get to the truth and this included using private investigators where the employee was being uncooperative. But of Mrs Orchard’s case, he said: “What I thought overstepped the mark was the placing of the tracker device on her private property.”

Mr Ball warned that using private investigators was not without its risks. If the employee finds out they could raise a grievance or claim constructive dismissal.

Mrs Orchard was suspected of working from home on a balloon decorating business while off sick with stress and a thyroid problem. She was cleared and given an £11,000 termination payment. A fire service spokesman said “covert observations” were used “in exceptional circumstances...to establish the full facts.”