Ask the Expert: Can an employee legally refuse an order to move desks?

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The question

I am an HR Assistant and am slightly upset at the treatment of one of the girls in the office.
She came on board about six months ago to act as team support and is line-managed by one of the PAs.
But there seemed to be friction from the start between them. This particular PA can be very assertive and controlling and everyone in the office appears to kowtow to her. Admittedly, I do too.
The new girl seemed to react quite badly to this situation and came to see my boss, the HR business partner, for advice on how to handle the situation. Since then, the decision has been made for the new girl to change line managers.
I have heard her current PA line manager whinge about her repeatedly in the office and she seems to be bolstering support for her point of view. The girl’s new boss is another manager within the team she supports.
The girl is quite shy and not overly communicative, but has come to me in a really upset state and I don’t know what to do for the best.
Her new line manager has asked her to move desks because she currently sits next to the PA line manager and he thinks it's for the best. She does not want to do this as she feels it will be humiliating and that her old boss, the PA, will gossip about the fact that she was made to move desks to get her away from her.
She feels it will undermine her position in the office and make her feel very uncomfortable around the rest of the team. The girl has said she does not want me to escalate the situation to the business partner as she feels he is in cahoots with the managers anyway. I guess she is speaking to me about it as she feels that I am on a similar level to her.
I don't know what to advise her to do for the best. Is she within her rights to refuse to move desks after explaining her rationale or does she have to move if told to do so? What is her legal position in terms of obeying managerial orders or not?
The legal verdict
Esther Smith, a partner at Thomas Eggar
A refusal to carry out a reasonable instruction may amount to misconduct and, in some cases, may be treated as gross misconduct, which allows for the employee to be dismissed without notice. However, the emphasis here is on the word ‘reasonable’ and the overall context of the situation being dealt with. 
Ultimately, it should be an employer’s decision as to how they organise their staff, but common sense would suggest that they take account of employees’ representations and feelings in this regard. 
If a desk move was a deliberate act designed to cause the employee distress or upset, it could be alleged that the employer has either been in breach of mutual trust and confidence with the employee concerned or, depending on the circumstances, committed an act of discrimination. 
Ideally, the employee in question should discuss her concerns with her new line manager and see if they can reach a suitable solution. If no such solution can be found, the new employee, if still unhappy, could raise a grievance. She could also refuse to move and claim, during any disciplinary proceedings, that her refusal was reasonable. 
However, the new employee should remain very mindful of the fact that she does not have the requisite one year’s service currently required to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. Therefore, she may wish to think carefully about refusing the instruction.
Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar's Employment Law Unit.
Martin Brewer, a partner at Mills & Reeve
What you seem to have here is the beginnings of a situation that could easily get out of control and lead to dysfunction within the team. The situation seems to comprise a mix of an assertive PA and a shy, new employee.
But moving desks is not, per se, undermining and there seems to be no credible reason, from what you say, why this employee should imagine that she will inevitably feel uncomfortable just because she has been asked to move. She is being negative and, it seems to me, somewhat over sensitive.
As an HR professional, you should be used to having difficult conversations sometimes so perhaps a simple approach might be to speak to the PAs involved and ask them if there is a real problem. If so, it can be dealt with.
Tell them that if they are moving her simply as part of a power game that such behaviour is petty and unnecessary and they should reconsider.
If not, then frankly I think the new girl needs to toughen up a bit. Perhaps you could assist her with some assertiveness training to build up her confidence because, if she is so affected by being asked to move desks, she is unlikely to survive for very long in any workplace.
Martin Brewer is a partner at Mills & Reeve LLP.

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By kbms
06th Mar 2012 19:26

In my (somewhat biased) view, some workplace mediation would be the ideal intervention here - nip this in the bud quickly by getting people to talk maturely & face to face before things get out of hand...

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