By Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini (Editor: SJ Crossan)
Privacy is a human right and both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, implemented provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) directly into national. The employment contract, consequently, is not in any way exempt from human rights issues (see the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08). The European Union (EU) has also had a major influence on the development of privacy laws e.g. General Data Protection Regulations.
Privacy has become a major issue in recent years, particularly due to the rise of social media use. The increasing use of IT systems and the internet by organisations and their employees are key factors in the expansion of laws regarding privacy. In Bărbulescu, the employer had violated the employee’s rights to privacy in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention in the way that it had monitored the company’s email system. Privacy in the work-place is a major issue for both employers and employees. Some of the most important areas of law that govern privacy are to be found in the areas of human rights, data protection, and freedom of information.
It is very important to establish from the outset that employees do not have an absolute right to privacy and there may be situations within and outwith the work-place where the employer has a legitimate interest in the activities of their employees – especially if such behaviour could amount to gross misconduct.
Gross misconduct relates to serious behaviour on the part of the employee that is deemed so bad that it destroys any relationship or trust between the employer and the employee. Gross misconduct warrants instant dismissal without any notice or pay.
Section 94 of the Employments Rights Act 1996 states that an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed.
Section 95 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that an employment contract can be terminated by means of the company through purpose of the employee’s conduct. Such a dismissal or termination of contract should be viewed as a fair dismissal (Section 98: ERA 1996).
Acts or omissions by the employee which would be classified as misconduct, such as theft, alcohol or drug use, poor discipline, continually missing work without justification or poor performance are all potential exceptions to this right.
Matt Simpson former officer in the Cumbria police force is one of many who have been caught out due to things such as inappropriate text messages. In 2020, PC Simpson was dismissed from the force after he was found to be having a secret, sexual relationship while on duty. It first came to light after the new partner of the female, with whom Simpson was involved, found text messages that had been sent to her. The new partner of Simpson’s lover then went to the police authorities with this information to make a formal complaint.
A hearing was held to establish if PC Simpson was guilty of any wrongdoing. The panel found that this was a dereliction of Simpson’s duties and he was guilty of gross misconduct – not only due to having this relationship during the time when he was meant to be working but also due to him using confidential police system to uncover information about the women purely because he was “curious”. As well as this Mr Simpson also visited the female around 20 times when on shift and had vital police equipment with him while visiting such as a body camera and a taser device. The fact that this whole affair had come to light via Simpson’s private text messages was neither here nor there: this was an aspect of Simpson’s private life in which his employers had a legitimate interest and he had been carrying out his romantic activities during his employment.
A link to the story on the BBC website can be found below:
In PC Simpson’s case, he clearly performed his duties inadequately and was guilty of very poor discipline. He was aware of the consequences of his actions. By involving himself with the female, he was making himself unavailable at times such as an emergency. Dereliction of duty is defined as the failure to fulfil one’s obligations. Here, PC Simpson clearly failed to do his job in a proper and professional manner and he could have been potentially negligent should an emergency have risen.
A further example of an employee committing acts of misconduct occurred in Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd  EWCA Civ 22. Mr Adesokan was hired by Sainsbury’s as a Regional Operation Manager when he was in charge of ‘Talkback Procedure’, a key company policy which involved all members of staff giving information in confidence about their working environment and relationships with other colleagues. Mr Adesokan discovered that his HR manager had tried to manipulate the Talkback scores within his region by sending an email to five store managers telling them to seek feedback only from their most enthusiastic colleagues. Mr Adesokan asked the HR manager to “clarify what he meant with the store managers”, but the HR manager never responded. Mr Adesokan failed to follow this matter up and he was later dismissed by his employer for not taking action to confront the HR manager’s deliberate “manipulation” of the survey data.
A subsequent investigation into the matter led to Mr Adesokan’s eventual summary dismissal for “gross negligence on his part which is equivalent to gross misconduct”. Mr Adesokan brought a claim for breach of contract with regard to his notice period. The English High Court found that although he was not dishonest, his failure to take active steps to remedy the situation had damaged Sainsbury’s trust and confidence in him, which was sufficient to warrant the sanction imposed. The English Court of Appeal subsequently affirmed the decision of the High Court.
The Adekosan case was remarkably similar to that of PC Simpson where no other option was available to the employer as there was a complete loss of trust.
Activities outwith working hours
What individuals do with their own time is largely their choice (as long as they stay on the right side of the law). It is exceedingly difficult, however, for many people to do much these days without using social media or a mobile phone. Activities which used to be very much private are, consequently, at a much greater risk of public exposure in the virtual world in which we find ourselves living in 2020.
Employees can carry out many activities in private that may get them in trouble with their employers and have serious consequences for them. This might include, for instance, acts of gross misconduct committed in private which result in reputational damage to the employer. Consequently, the employer may have no alternative but to contemplate dismissal of the employee.
There is a lot of case law with regard to employees being dismissed from situations that have happened outside the workplace, an example would be the well-known case of X v Y  EWCA Civ 662.
The facts of the case are as follows:
A charity employee who worked with young offenders committed an indecent act with another male in a public toilet at a motorway service station. He was put on the Sex Offenders’ Register as a result of receiving a police caution. The worker had not been straightforward with the Police when they asked questions about his job and, compounding this, he failed to inform his employer about the situation. Later, his employer decided to terminate his contract and the dismissal was once deemed to be fair. The reputational harm which the employer suffered due to the fact of the employee’s failure to be completely honest about what had happened was an enormous element of the decision to dismiss.
The English Court of Appeal was firmly of the view that the employee’S argument that he had a right to privacy (on grounds of his sexual orientation) in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not applicable here as the indecent act was not of a personal nature due to the fact it had been carried out in a public toilet.
In some cases, however, it may be problematic to dismiss the ‘offending’ employee who may be involved in activities which come under the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. philosophical beliefs or freedom of speech laws in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.
One example of this was reported by The Independent regarding Dr Gunnar Beck, a German national and a candidate for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right political party.
Dr Beck was employed at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), (part of the University of London) as a law lecturer. A number of his students and colleagues were enraged after discovering that he was an AfD candidate for a German seat in the European Parliamentary Elections in 2019.
Students and fellow lecturers organised protests arguing that Dr Beck should be fired from his position and for his employer to justify its part “in facilitating his far-right politics”. His colleagues from the School of Law stated that they vehemently oppose the AfD and its policies and wished to dissociate themselves completely from the people who support and advocate the Party.
The members of AfD are well-known for making provocative remarks concerning the actions taken by the Nazis. They targeted climate change activist, Greta Thunberg as part of their attempts to deny climate change.
Employees at the University of London went on to say that they were making their views public since they “recognise the importance of not being complicit in the normalisation of reactionary, right-wing populism.” A declaration by the students’ union at the university asked why Beck chose to work at a university “who hold and support so many of the identities he wants to see diminished”.
The Acting General Secretary of the University and College Union, Paul Cottrell stated that:
“The AfD is an extreme right-wing, racist, anti-immigration party that has no place on UK campuses. We are shocked that a member of academic staff from SOAS could be involved with a party like this which stands for policies utterly incompatible with the values of diversity, tolerance and internationalism at the very heart of SOAS as an institution.”
Dr Beck informed The Independent that his reason for supporting the AfD was because “there is no other Eurosceptic conservative party in Germany”.
He also went on to say that the AfD are “not a Nazi nor a fascist party.” Dr Beck stated that he was an advocate for freedom of speech and would defend anyone’s rights to it and any claims of him being a white supremacist, Islamophobe or fascist were outrageous.
Subsequently, Dr Beck was elected as 1 of 10 German MEPs from the AfD Party, but he was not dismissed from his position at the university.
A representative of SOAS stated:
“We find the policies of the AfD on a range of matters to be abhorrent. They conflict with the fundamental values we hold as an institution. We recognise the anxiety caused to staff and students as a result of this situation.”
However, they added that:
“As an academic institution, we are committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise. We encourage members of our community to tackle these issues through robust debate.”
This story regarding Dr Beck’s private affairs is an excellent illustration of employers not being able to fire an employee for acts committed in private due to protected characteristics (i.e. political beliefs) of the Equality Act 2010.
Both Dr Beck and the University of London have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage. Beck has suffered reputational damage in the eyes of his fellow lecturers and students because he is a member of AfD; and the university has suffered reputational damage for employing him in the first instance and subsequently for not dismissing him after the revelation about his political activities came to light.
That said, the University of London was in something of a difficult position because Dr Beck would probably have launched a legal challenge in terms of the Equality Act 2010. He would doubtless have protested that his political activities were a protected characteristic (philosophical beliefs). It would then have been up to an Employment Tribunal and, potentially, the higher courts to determine this issue. There was also the possibility that the university would have been accused of suppressing the right to freedom of speech.
A link to the story in The Independent can be found below:
Using social media outside work
As previously discussed, reputational damage is a big concern for organisations. Employers have also had valid fears about risks to their’ reputation as a result of work place misconduct that becomes widely publicised in e.g. the media. These fears have been increased with the surge in social media use today.
Employees are now far more likely to be found behaving in questionable ways or making offensive remarks online, which can attract a large audience or readership very quickly. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp (where responses can be instant) can represent something of a nightmare for an employer. It is important to remember that social media, if abused, can have a significant impact on relationships within the work place and could result in serious legal consequences.
Social media misuse by employees has become a frequent and complicated issue for employers to address. Although social media can be an extremely valuable resource for organisations, it can also pose a serious challenge to both employees and employers. Inappropriate social media misuse e.g. racial or sexual harassment could lead to employers being held vicariously liable for their workers’ misbehaviour.
When an employee misuses social media, firms need to know how to respond and handle it. Therefore, it is vital for companies to devise a clearly defined social media policy by which employees abide. It is important that employers notify workers about the nature of these policies and the potential ramifications of any violations.
So, when employers want to act against employees who make offensive remarks, such disciplinary action should come as no surprise. Such remarks can cause embarrassment, at best. At worst can hurt a firm’s reputation and lose them customers. Even if the remarks were posted years ago, they can still come back to haunt the employer and the employee.
The difficulty of dealing with social media use by employees for organisations can be seen in the case below.
Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016 Mr Creighton was dismissed for tweets which were made three years earlier. He had made negative remarks about colleagues and his boss on Twitter. The claim that Mr Creighton posted offensive remarks on Twitter resulted in his dismissal for gross misconduct even though he had worked with the organisation for 30 years.
Held: The Tribunal further clarified that the disciplinary policy of THA included “defaming the company or undermining its image by the use of social media” as an example of gross misconduct. The appeal panel rejected Mr Creighton’s appeal to the decision, arguing that he was aware or should have been fairly aware of the implications of his conduct as the disciplinary policy of the company.
There are more and more cases of social media defamation – which emphasises a need for extremely specific social media rules and regulations in the terms and conditions of an employer.
Employees are going to be very foolish if they assume it’s a credible argument to claim that social media comments happened outside working hours, were believed to be posted on an account that is supposed to be “secret” or posted years earlier, which Mr Creighton found out.
The importance of having a social media policy
As previously mentioned, establishing a solid social media policy is vital for an organisation. From the workers’ viewpoint, it is important that they are aware of the existence of such a policy, understand its substance and also recognise any potential consequences for failing to follow its rules.
Employers are also urged to review and update social media policies on a routine basis. New platforms and technology continue to be developed at a quick pace today and to maintain the knowledge of social media is simply made part of induction and training methods.
It is extremely necessary for an employer to make clear to its employees the kind of conduct which may justify dismissal. Usually, this may be done via a section in the employee handbook which addresses the consequences of misconduct in the workplace.
Additionally, an acceptable induction technique for new personnel may centre on the kinds of behaviour which the corporation would not condone. Regular refresher training for current and long-term personnel may be beneficial and, in large organisations, this would be a necessary function of the Human Resources Department.
There was a huge news outbreak when a Panera Bread employee leaked a video of a man laughing hysterically that’s racked up almost 1 million likes (now that’s a lot), as a plastic packet of frozen macaroni and cheese is dropped into a boiler, burst open and then poured into a bowl geared up to serve to customers. The lady who posted the clip offers a thumbs-up in the hat that marks her as a worker of Panera Bread.
A link to the video can be found below:
The clip introduced a wave of complaints in October 2019 from dissatisfied clients of a chain recognized for “fast casual” eating commonly perceived as a step in quality above other quickly made or fast food meals. Commenters stated they expected more than warmed-from-frozen dishes, or — as one critic put it — “glorified hospital food.”
Unfortunately for the employee she later posted on Twitter stating, ‘lol I lost my job for this’. The employer was clearly very unhappy at the negative media attention and being ‘outed’ for lying to its customers and providing them with low quality food.
In conclusion, employees should be incredibly careful of what they are doing or how they areusing social media during or outwith their working hours as their employers will have the right to investigate any implications arising from employees’ misconduct.
One of most likely repercussions arising from employees’ misconduct in privacy cases, is that the business and those involved will experience reputational damage. Whether this reputational damage is a result of offensive language in a tweet, forms of bullying in a Whatsapp groupchat or even now a TikTok exposing behind the scene practices of a company – there can be significant consequences. The preponderance of evidence shows that how employees conduct themselves in what they may consider private, has a major effect on workplace relations.
Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd  EWCA Civ 22
Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08)
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), (2020) ‘Employment law’ Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law [Accessed: 28 April 2020]
Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016
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The Independent, (2019) ‘Campus outcry as teacher stands for German far-right party in European elections’ Available at: https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html [Accessed: 28 April 2020]
X v Y  EWCA Civ 662
Copyright Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini, 28 April 2020