Lynne Curry: Cellphone recordings sensitive issue

Q: I supervise a contentious, passive-aggressive employee. We don't get along; however, he's good at what he does. I'd fire him just to be done with the drama, but he's got talents I don't want to lose.

This morning I learned he records each of our conversations on his smartphone. Since I wouldn't say anything to him I wouldn't want repeated, I'm not worried about being taped, however I find this annoying and creepy.

I don't know even know how to bring it up because he'll know his co-worker snitched on him if I mention it. Can and should I fire him?

A: Smartphones and other pocket-sized devices give employees and others a powerful tool for easily and surreptitiously recording playbacks of sensitive workplace conversations. According to workplace researchers, employees are increasingly taping their employers. Attorney Katrina Patrick says more than 50 percent of the people who come to her office bring digital evidence when they want to sue their employers.

In a famous recent case, several dozen Boathouse restaurant waiters and dishwashers armed with miniature cassette recorders secretly recorded hundreds of workplace conversations with supervisors when complaining about pay and working conditions. When the restaurant owner fired 16 of the workers, they produced multiple audiotape recordings on which the owner told employees he'd go out of business if they voted for a union. These tapes provided proof the owner violated federal labor laws.

In Washington, however, employees can't single-handedly record their managers because all parties must consent to the recording to any private phone or face-to-face communication. This all-party consent can be satisfied if one party tells all other parties that the communication is about to be recorded or transmitted. Further, if an employer commits a crime such as harassment, said attorney Alicia Berry, the employer has waived their right to consent and an employee can record the conversation.

Can you fire this employee? Yes -- unless he was recording your illegal behavior, he broke the law. Before you jump to a legal solution, however, ask yourself if that fixes the entire problem. What turned your employee into a cellphone James Bond? Your employee wants something -- possibly to intimidate you or to get the goods on you. You can squash the symptom -- his secret recordings -- or focus on the entire problem.

You don't like this man yet you have continued to employ and pay him. Another employee voiced a concern and if you act on it she may pay the consequences. Your workplace needs a serious fix. Can you and your employee meet behind closed doors and hash this out? Did he need to leave long before this?

While you can effectively work with and manage individuals you don't personally like, managers need to respect their employees and act in ways that earn their respect. Even as one of your employees secretly taped you, other employees silently watched how you interacted with him and what you let him get away with. Passive-aggressive, contentious employees can poison an entire workplace.

Your real fix may involve more than this employee -- it requires that you take an honest look at your leadership behavior before you lose credibility. This doesn't mean you have to come down with both feet on this employee, though you can -- it does mean you have to act well and quickly.

-- Management/employee trainer and the owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc., Dr. Lynne Curry provides columns to newspapers in multiple states. Curry can be reached at