Weekly dilemma: Emergency contact information

We keep a list of the addresses and telephone numbers of all our staff so that we can contact them in an emergency. One of our employees is refusing to provide her telephone number or new address. Can we insist on this?

On the face of it, yes. In normal circumstances, an employer can legitimately require those details from an employee, not just for the disaster-recovery purposes you mention but also in relation to accidents at work, contact during sick leave or holiday, or in relation to benefits administration, etc. However, this right is not absolute, in the sense that you cannot move straight to dismissal if the refusal persists.

First, there must be some investigation into why the employee is so touchy on this subject. Often, it is a wholly misguided sense of entitlement to privacy for one’s personal data (including contact details) but sometimes there is a real concern, for example that the employee in question has reasonable grounds to fear that she will be harassed by another if those contact details are made public, or has been harassed previously.

Withholding an address on the former grounds would be very difficult for the employee. On the assumption that when you took on the employee you were aware of her address, it is hard for her then to determine that any later address should not be your legitimate business. In addition, you would expect any employee taking that view to have taken other steps to protect that information, for example to make herself ex-directory and not to have any address registered on the electoral role or at Companies House, etc.

If there are concrete grounds for a genuine concern on the latter basis, however, then the position might be different. It would be incumbent on you to explore means of concealing the information through redaction on forms, or by encrypting or passwording electronic records.

Alternatively, the employee’s concerns may be based on a simple mistrust of your company or your HR staff – the possibility that her contact details may be sold to marketing companies or, in the finest traditions of some of our biggest and most reputable employers, just left on the train. This is the weakest argument on your employee’s behalf. Accidents can happen anywhere, but precautions are taken and such lapses must always be very much the exception rather than the rule. If your employee is so sceptical as to your company’s integrity or competence, the long-term prospects for the relationship cannot be good. Such an argument would obviously undermined to a substantial extent by the employee not simply resigning from your employment.

All of this, of course, begs the question of what you will do with those contact details and who will have access to them. If they are part of a disaster recovery “tree”, ie a plan by which calls about a disaster affecting the workplace are cascaded down the workforce, then, by definition, at least the employee’s telephone number would have to be open to your other staff for the tree to operate.

If those details are kept within HR for the purposes of administration and managing the employment contract, what precautions are taken to ensure their integrity and safety from unauthorised eyes? If it is possible to show the employee that any concerns she may have about access by creditors, vengeful exes or besotted but unfavoured colleagues, etc, are misplaced, then you should do this as far as practicable, and certainly before any formal action to enforce your position is undertaken.

In the end, if you have a good reason for seeking the information and have reasonable systems in place to keep it as confidential as its intended use allows, and the employee has no real or sustainable reason for not disclosing it to you, you would have grounds to dismiss for her failure to comply with a reasonable management request. Remember that to allow exceptions to the principle that you need your employees’ contact details is to undermine it materially, perhaps fatally, so it should only be in the most extreme cases that you allow any employee not to comply with this rule.

It goes without saying that no dismissal should take place until after a reasonable discussion between you and the employee as to her particular concerns and the extent to which they are either justified and/or avoidable by appropriate safeguards, and after making clear to her the consequences of her continued refusal.

David Whincup, partner, Squire Sanders Hammonds, London

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