The impact of UK Law on sport

By Stephanie Crainey, Ross Codona and Briege Elder (Editor: SJ Crossan)

Introduction

Sport is often viewed as a special entity whereby the law and legal systems do not directly interfere with its rules (Laver, 2020). Therefore, the rules under which a particular sport is played are not an area where the legal system will usually interfere.

The government in the United Kingdom has adopted this non-interventionist approach to sport, meaning there is no general law for sport. Instead regulation is left to the National Governing Bodies (NBGs) (Bennett, 2019).

However, with the turn of a new decade and the economic crash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some major issues in sports law have arisen, including whether an athlete is an employee or worker, the terms and conditions governing athletes and their use of social media platforms. Can these issues possibly be addressed, never mind resolved?

Is an Athlete an employee or a worker?

Above British cyclist, Jess Varnish (right) who is currently involved in legal action against British Cycling and UK Sport over her employment status

The question of an individual’s employment status is always up for debate no matter which profession we are discussing. The focus of this question, in recent times, is mainly focused around the gig economy. This type of work might involve individuals providing a service e.g taxi driver (Uber) or food delivery (Nicholson, 2019).

However, due to the nature of the work (short-term and very insecure), gig economy workers are not usually granted the same rights and protection as employees under UK employment law.

Attempts have now been made to address this situation: in 2017, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts and former Downing Street adviser, was commissioned by the UK Government to conduct an independent review on modern working practices; and in the US State of California, Assembly Bill 5 was passed into law in 2020 giving gig economy workers employment status. The Taylor Review looked at the growth of the UK gig economy and considered its implications for worker rights and responsibilities (Nicholson, 2019). Despite the widespread attention that the Californian Assembly Bill 5 and the Taylor report both received, there is still not sufficient clarity surrounding the status of workers who provide services in the gig economy.

In 2018 the issue of employment status and sport received a lot of media attention when former Great Britain cyclist, Jessica Varnish argued that she ‘should be considered an employee of British Cycling or of the funding agency, UK Sport.’(McGowan, 2019). The world silver medallist set out to prove she was, in fact, an employee in order to enable her to sue British Cycling and UK Sport for both wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination, after she was dropped by team GB before the 2016 Olympics. Shane Sutton, former British Cycling director, was found to have used sexist language toward Varnish, although he denied these claims. Sutton later left his post with British Cycling.

Unfortunately, for Varnish, she lost her claim for wrongful dismissal at the Employment Tribunal in early 2019. Put simply, the Tribunal held that she was not an employee of either British Cycling or UK Sport and, therefore, she was not entitled to bring such a claim. Varnish has now appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

The appeal hearing could either overturn the decision of the Tribunal or order a new hearing to take place. Varnish stated:

“I want to give others the opportunity to hold to account employees of governing bodies, who they interact with on a daily basis, and have significant control over their careers and opportunities.”

She added:

I continue to think it’s unfair that athletes still have no structured means to do this, and I hope this appeal will be the first step towards affecting change, and bring about a fairer, more modern and high performance system in the UK where athlete welfare is not just a sound bite, but something that we all believe in.” (McGowan, 2019).

In response to her statement, a British Cycling spokesmen added:

We very much regret that Jess has been advised to pursue the route of an employment tribunal when other avenues were available to her….. We will continue to represent what we believe are the best interests of every rider currently supported through the high performance system, and all those in our sport who hope to one day compete at an Olympics or Paralympics.” (McGowan, 2019).

Employment rights: employees vs workers

Determining the question of Jessica’s Varnish’s employment status (employee or worker) is vital to this case as it will decide what employee rights she is entitled to (if any).

True, most workers are protected against unlawful discrimination in terms of the Equality Act 2010, and harassment and victimisation in relation to ‘whistle-blowing’ actions (reporting of wrong doing in the work place). However, you must be an employee in order to be protected from unfair and wrongful dismissal (CIPD, 2020)

Section 230 of the Employment Rights act 1996 defines an employee as “an individual who has entered into or works under a contract of employment.”

Over many years, UK courts and Tribunals have developed specific tests that must be fulfilled in order to assess an individual’s employment status (Crossan, 2017). These include:

  • Mutuality of obligation
  • The control test
  • The economic reality test
  • The organisation or integration test

The definition of a worker (which is a wider concept than an employee) can also be found in different pieces of legislation e.g. the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Working Times Regulations 1998. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) defines a worker as:

an individual who undertakes to do or perform personally any work or service for another party, whether under a contract of employment or any other contract.’(CIPD, 2020).

Although the CIPD definition is based on the Employment Rights Act 1996, the definition of worker varies from statute to statute.

As in other parts of the UK employment market, the employment status of athletes will often be a contested concept, meaning that the various tests listed above will have to be deployed by the courts and Tribunals to resolve the issue. It is notable that a large part of Jessica Varnish’s original Tribunal action focused on the control test i.e. she had to follow the training regime laid down by British Cycling in order to be eligible for continued funding from UK Sport.

Athletes in the world of social media

Social media is a great way for an athlete to connect with their existing fans. As well as this, it also allows you, the individual fan to connect with others whom you have never met, such as other fans of your team/sport, or supporters from your hometown etc. Athletes, amateur and elite, can have their use of social media restricted and regulated through provisions contained in Standard Player Contracts.

This is completely understandable from the point of a view of an employer or sponsor because an athlete’s online activities/posts may bring about critical, reputational harm and financial loss to partnered clubs and associations. Athletes’ contracts may contain certain restrictions on what they can and can’t post on social media. However, these restrictions may or will vary from specific social media targeted polices (“blackout” before during and after games), to more general restrictions which cover wider aspects of an athlete’s behaviour (Social Media In Sport: Top Tips, 2020).

Clubs and organisation are urged routinely to remind athletes with regard to what is appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour. This can incorporate a reminder to athletes that, while they are not participating in the activity, they still have commitments to the employer and sponsors and are expected to stick to an agreed code of conduct – just as though they were working. Athletes may have both a personal and professional social media account, but the restrictions and requirements that they are expected to adhere do not change.

Social media allows athletes to secure sponsorship. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are just some of the ways to reach thousands of people who you would not normally be able to target.

In the UK, athletes and brands must take care when posting promotions and sponsored posts. This is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice Codes. The CAP code requires that all advertising is easily identifiable.

In 2012, professionalfootballers, Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshire broke this requirement after they posted a tweet under Nikes campaign slogan ‘#makeitcount’. The two athletes failed to make it clear that the tweets were in fact from Nike’s marketing communications. For an athlete or any individual using social media for promotional purposes, they must add ‘#spon’ or ‘#ad’ to a post, something which both Rooney and Wilshire failed to do. This helps to make the advertising easily identifiable and prevents anyone from failing to meet the requirements (Social Media In Sport: Top Tips, 2020).

A delicate balancing act

Guidelines for athletes to follow for social media may vary from each profession. It’s no surprise that what Athletes post can be seen potentially by millions of people around the world. There is a need to ensure that, before posting any content, they are happy with what they are about to upload. Are they happy for the post to be linked back to them and be easily accessible forever? Would they be happy if the post was to end up appearing somewhere which was not intended e.g TV, gossip magazines/blogs? It can be a very delicate balancing act.

It is important to respect yourself, your sport and the club/organisation of which you are part. Anyone, especially a public figure (such as athletes), must ask themselves, how might this be portrayed or received by my followers? Will this reflect negatively upon their “role model” status? Could my post effect sponsorship for them or the sport?

These are just a few guidelines that Scottish athletes have to consider Athletes must also ensure that the amount of time they are spending on social media is not affecting their performance. All of these factors are essential when considering what content to upload and share with your followers on social media. Ultimately it’s all about having respect for your audience and yourself.

Maternal/paternal rights for athletes

Many employees receive family-friends benefits which include parental leave or childcare. Diageo, for example, is a UK beverage company which recently introduced female employees to be offered a minimum of 26 weeks fully paid maternity leave under a new global policy (Rennie and Beach, 2020). The vast majority of employees, by contrast will receive just the statutory minimum maternity pay.

Maternity rights

Sporting bodies are generally falling behind in creating Family-Friendly policies which is inconsistent with modern attitudes towards athletes’ rights. Many British athletes e.g Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jo Pavey are parents, yet have still made a successful return to sport.

UK Sport Guidance states thatif a female athlete becomes pregnant they can continue to receive World Class Programme funding and support during pregnancy and after child birth. She (the mother) and her performance director are expected to agree a new appropriate training and competition programme that would map the athlete’s return.

Three months after childbirth, the sports performance director is encouraged to undertake a review with the athlete in order to assess them on her commitment to the agreed plan. By the end of the three months, if the athlete has made the decision that they in fact do not want to return to the sport, then they would be given a notice period depending on the length of time that they had been involved on the World Class Programme before they were then removed from funding (Falkingham, 2020).

Paternity rights

In 2019, the England Cricket team had its biannual tussle with rivals Australia. Batsman, Joe Denly, a new recruit to the England ranks, left the field at the end of the first 5 days of the final Test Match at the Oval in London. The athlete drove 60 miles to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter. The following day, Denly was back on the field facing the Australian bowlers. Joe then went on to create the highest score to date, only narrowly missing out on a Test century (Jackson and Brenner, 2018 and Anderson et al, 2019).

Denly’s story is a happier example than the experience of former Manchester United’s French star, Anthony Martial. The star was fined £180,000 and shamed publicly in 2018 for missing a week of training after flying to be his wife in order to support her through a difficult labour and welcome their son into the world. Two of the days in which he was away were dedicated to travel alone (Jackson and Brenner, 2018 and Anderson et al, 2019).

Sporting success is valued more than family. The famous one liner,“winners never quit and quitters never win” is one which athletes find so important. So much so that, in the 1990s, the President of Oakland athletics, Billy Bean missed his partner’s funeral in order to continue playing a game (Anderson et al, 2019).

These types of incidents sit completely at odds with decent treatment of employees. Organisations are increasing the length of time woman get full maternity pay. A study by the University of Birmingham found that only 9,200 new parents (just over 1% of individuals entitled) shared parental leave in 2017-18. However that rose to 10,700 in the financial year 2018-19. Companies now seem more willing to offer other options to just maternity leave, in the hope of recruiting and retaining high calibre employees (Birkett and Forbes, 2018).

How has Coronavirus has affected sport?

Law in sport is no different to ordinary law in that sporting organisations and sponsors have to respect and obey the rules. This has been particularly highlighted during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Coronavirus has caused major sports leagues and events around the world to cease current activities or cancel upcoming events due to strict lockdown rules (The Independent, 2020). COVID-19 has forced governing bodies to try to intervene and protect institutions within their area, for example, FIFA (the governing body of football) has set up a £121 million relief fund for its 211 national associations (Keegan, 2020)

The lockdown laws which come as part of the pandemic haven’t just affected international bodies but also had an affect domestically. In Football, national leagues such as the Premier League in England have come to a halt until further notice ,whilst some other leagues around Europe declared their seasons over or null and void as they have in Ligue 1 (France) and the Eredivisie (The Netherlands).

The halting of sporting activities isn’t the only implication of this crisis: it has had a major impact on the employment of all those involved in sport directly or indirectly.

In the UK, furloughing has been introduced to try and help businesses to pay their employees. The furlough scheme means that the UK Government pays 80% of employees’ wages up to a ceiling of £2500 a month (HMRC, 2020).

This causes issues, however, for many professional, sporting institutions, as many athletes are earning far above £2500 a month. Therefore such individuals are ineligible to be furloughed placing sporting institutions under serious financial strain should players refuse to take wage cuts. FC Sion, a football team in Switzerland, were forced to terminate the contracts of 9 footballers after they refused to take pay cuts (BBC, 2020b)

In other instances, the furlough scheme has been supported and it has had the desired effect. The McLaren Formula 1 team main drivers Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris have taken pay cuts in order to support their fellow employees on the team (Galloway, 2020)

Added to this, the UK Health Protection Regulations 2020 have prevented sports such as Formula 1, Football, Boxing or Rugby being performed because of current social distancing restrictions. Whilst this has had a detrimental effect on the sporting world as a whole, it has provided a boost in less traditional fields. E-sports have increased in prominence since the cancellation/postponement of traditional sporting events. Formula 1, in particular, has capitalised on the potential E-sports platform. Formula 1 has been hosting ‘virtual’ Grand Prixs where a mixture of current drivers, figures in the sport, other sportsmen or celebrities race against each other by using the official Formula 1 video game (Dixon, 2020).

The reaction has been positive as a reported 3.2 million viewers witnessed the inaugural virtual Grand Prix, the stature of many of those involved is testament to its success as prominent figures in world sport such as Thibaut Courtois, Ciro Immobile and Sir Chris Hoy have all competed in the virtual Grand Prix (Dixon, 2020)

The cancellation of major sporting matches and events is causing massive implications financially and logistically. In Rugby there had been suggestions that games in France could be played behind closed doors should the league be started again. Club owners highlighted objections to this, in particular, the owner of ‘Stade Toulouse’ would potentially lose millions of Euros before the end of the season should games be played behind closed doors (Ultimate Rugby, 2020).

The UK Health Protection Regulations 2020 have caused major financial implications to sporting institutions across the country. Leeds United, a football club competing in the English Championship, is set to miss out on lucrative financial benefits of promotion to the Premier League. Being promoted to the Premier League guarantees Clubs a large sum of prize money worth millions. However, the following season they spend in the premier league promises them close to £100 million even if they finish last place (Winters, 2020). This level of money could help Leeds United recover from its financial deficit. At the time of writing, all games have been postponed for the foreseeable future meaning that there is a lack of certainty as to what happens next.

Logistically on a global scale COVID-19 has caused the disruption of massive global events that take years of organisation to have now been postponed. Although some of the postponements are only estimated to be a year, the cost can still be detrimental. Reports claim that a one year delay of the Olympics could result in £2.3 billion in further costs (Mail online, 2020).

Conclusion

COVID-19 has emphasised key aspects of employment law, even at an elite level in sport there is more protection being employee rather than being a worker or self-employed. Many members of clubs and teams in different sports have agreed pay cuts. However, they are still being paid. This situation isn’t the same for professional golf: players are registered as self-employed. Footballers are still being paid or have at least agreed a deferral of wages or a temporary pay cut, but nevertheless, their employment contract still protects them during this time of major uncertainty. Golfing stars such as Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood do not have this protection unlike football stars such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.

It is clear that UK employment law needs to do more in determining an athlete’s employment status. The UK Government must also work harder to protect athletes and their rights. Due to the catastrophic pandemic, not only will sports organisations and clubs suffer but also their athletes. The only certainty in these most uncertain times is that Covid-19 is likely to generate a plethora of future legal disputes which will shape our legal landscape, especially in the world of sport, for some time to come.

References

Anderson, E., Parry, K.D., & Batten, J., 2019. With women’s sport leading the way, male athletes could benefit from family-friendly policies too. Available at: https://scroll.in/field/942000/with-womens-sport-leading-the-way-male-athletes-could-benefit-from-family-friendly-policies-too [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Anderson, E., Parry, K.D., & Batten, J., 2020. Sporting Dads: Male Athletes Need Family-Friendly Policies Too. [online] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/sporting-dads-maleathletes-need-family-friendly-policies-too-125514 [Accessed 25 April]

BBC Sport. 2020. Should Sports Do More To Help Female Athletes Feel ‘More Comfortable’ Having Children During Career?. [online] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.bbc.co.uk/sport/amp/48336819 [Accessed 25 April]

BBC, 2020a. Coronavirus: How The Virus Has Impacted Sporting Events Around The World. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/51605235> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

BBC, 2020b. FC Sion sack nine players for reportedly not taking pay cut because of coronavirus crisis. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/51980881 [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Bennett, M., 2019. Sports Law In The United Kingdom | Lexology. [online] Lexology.com. Available at: <https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=7cc100e9-382e-4013-b1a0-8499c6889c0e> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Birkett, H and Forbes, S (2018). Shared Parental Leave: Why is take up so low and what can be done? (1). Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social- sciences/business/research/wirc/spl-policy-brief.pdf [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, 2020. Employment Status Q&As. [online] Available at: <https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/employees/status-questions> [Accessed 26 April 2020].

Dixon, E., 2020. F1’S Inaugural Virtual Grand Prix Draws 3.2M Online Viewers. [online] Sportspromedia.com. Available at: <https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/f1-virtual-bahrain-grand-prix-online-viewers-streaming-esports-julian-tan> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Galloway, J., 2020. Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris take pay cuts as some McLaren staff furloughed. [Sky News online] Available at: https://www.skysports.com/f1/news/12433/11967263/carlos-sainz-lando-norris-take-pay-cuts-as-some-mclaren-staff-furloughed [Accessed 22 April 2020].

The Independent, 2020. Sport-By-Sport Look At The Impact Of Coronavirus Around The World. [online] independent.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/sport-football-basketball-rugby-olympics-cancelled-coronavirus-impact-around-the-world-a9398186.html> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Jackson, J. and Brenner, S., 2018. Anthony Martial faces fine despite return to Manchester United training. [The Guardian online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/aug/01/manchester-uniteds-anthony-martial-to-return-to-training-after-birth-of-child [Accessed 22 April 2020]

HM Revenue & Customs, 2020. Check if you can claim for your employees’ wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. [Online]
Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme
[Accessed 22 April 2020].

Keegan, M., 2020. FIFA draw up plans for emergency relief fund as governing body looks to help cash-strapped football authorities facing ruin due to coronavirus pandemic [Mail online]. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-8172853/FIFA-draw-plans-emergency-relief-fund-governing-body-looks-help-football-authorities.html [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Laver, N., 2020. Sport And The Law [online] Available at: <https://www.inbrief.co.uk/sports-law/sport-and-the-law/> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Mail online, 2020. Tokyo Organisers Counting The Cost Of Postponement Of Olympic Games. [online] dailymail.com. Available at: <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-8181433/Coronavirus-Tokyo-organisers-counting-cost-postponement-Olympic-Games.html> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

McGowan, A., 2019. Varnish Wins Right To Appeal Tribunal. [online] BBC Sport. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cycling/50825263> [Accessed 24 April 2020].

Nicholson, R., 2019. Are Professional Athletes Employees?. [online] Shepherd and Wedderburn. Available at: <https://shepwedd.com/knowledge/are-professional-athletes-employees> [Accessed 24 April 2020].

Rennie, J., Beach, N., 2020. Win-Win: A Progressive Approach To Maternity & Paternity Rights For Professional Athletes – Lawinsport. [online] Lawinsport.com. Available at: https://www.lawinsport.com/topics/item/win-win-a-progressive-approach-to-maternity-paternity-rights-for-professional-athletes [Accessed 25 April]

Scottish Athletics, 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.scottishathletics.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2014/04/SAL-Social-Media-Guidelines-191016.pdf [Accessed 23 April]

Talk Sport, 2018. The Money Each Premier League Club Earned From TV And Their Final Position. [online] Available at: <https://talksport.com/football/376346/how-much-money-each-premier-league-club-earned-tv-and-their-final-position-180518283150/> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

The National Law Review. 2020. Social Media In Sport: Top Tips. [online] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.natlawreview.com/article/social-media-sport-toptips%3famp [Accessed 23 April]

Trades Union Congress, 2020. Employment Status And Rights. [online] Available at: <https://www.tuc.org.uk/employment-status-and-rights> [Accessed 25 April 2020].

UK Health Protection Regulations 2020

Ultimate Rugby, 2020. Top 14 Owner Claims His Club Will Lose Millions If Games Are Played Behind Closed Doors. [online] Available at: <https://www.ultimaterugby.com/news/top-14-owner-claims-his-club-will-lose-millions-if-games-are-played-behind-closed-doors/625829> [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Winters, M., 2020. The colossal cost of cancellation: Leeds could lose £100m MINIMUM if promotion to Premier League is scrapped while National League leaders Barrow may miss out on £1m if the season is voided… the impact on lower leagues would be devastating [Mail online]. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-8293009/Leeds-United-lose-100m-MINIMUM-promotion-Premier-League-scrapped.html [Accessed 22 April 2020].

Copyright Stephanie Crainey, Ross Codona and Briege Elder, 22 April 2020

The Battle of Balaclava?

Photo by nick olson on Unsplash

Balaclavas can be very useful things to have to hand – when the weather is very cold or you’re discussing the Crimean War (1853-1856) from where the term for the garment originates in the United Kingdom (circa 1881, according to the historian and cleric, Richard Rutt). During the Crimean War, British soldiers wore the garment to cope with the sub-zero temperatures that they experienced during the winter months of the Campaign.

Today, the garments are still incredibly popular with cyclists and winter sports’ enthusiasts (I confess: I have two for cycling during the winter months and they’re great!).

Despite, the historical associations with the British Army’s involvement in the Crimean War, it’s not always advisable to use the Balaclava as a teaching aid for History classes – especially DIY History classes.

McClean, an Irish footballer playing for the English Championship side, Stoke City FC, has recently found this out to his cost.

In a bizarre social media post (on Instagram), McClean put a picture of himself wearing a Balaclava as he was talking to two children. What was the point of this strange exercise? McClean claims that he was teaching the children about history, but others have seen this as an endorsement of paramilitary groups – particularly the Provisional IRA.

Today’s history lesson by James McClean

There was a public backlash and McClean was fined by this Club. The player is something of a controversial figure to many as he routinely refuses to have a poppy printed on his football jersey in the run-up to Remembrance Day commemorations each November in the United Kingdom.

https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/poppy-james-mcclean-matic-guardiola-klopp-remembrance-sunday-armistice-day-a9194266.html

McClean hails from the City of Derry in the North of Ireland which will be forever associated with the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 30 January 1972. On that day, 13 innocent Civil Rights marchers were shot and killed without justification by members of the Parachute Regiment – as per the conclusions of Lord Saville’s Report (2010) which contradicted Lord Widgery’s findings published in April 1972. The Saville Inquiry took 12.5 years and cost the British taxpayer £191.5 million – the longest and most expensive inquiry ever in the United Kingdom (figures obtained from The Spectator).

The previous Widgery Report was seen by many in the Republican and Nationalist community as a cover-up and a whitewash in that it absolved the Parachute Regiment of any wrong-doing for the deaths. Inevitably, the Report fuelled a long lasting sense of grievance within this community. McClean grew up on Derry’s Creggan Estate – not far from St Mary’s Church where many of the funerals of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ victims took place.

We often forget that footballers can be employees i.e. have a contract of service with their Clubs as per Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. McClean is fortunate that he has retained his post; other, less famous employees might not have been so lucky.

Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 permits an employer to dismiss an employee (potentially) fairly by reason of his/her conduct (with the proviso, of course, that the employer follows proper procedures in line with current ACAS standards).

McClean might initially have protested that the social media post was done while he was outside working hours. Regular readers of this Blog will be well aware that this type of excuse is extremely naive at best. Yes, employees do have a right to privacy, in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights, but this is never absolute – especially if an employer can argue that the behaviour of an individual employed by him or her has caused reputational damage to the organisation.

Employers do have a part to play here: they have a duty to have clear and consistent guidelines on employee social media use within and outwith the work-place. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the employer should make sure that employees are aware of the existence of such guidelines and have actually read them.

The misbehaviour or misconduct of employees which takes place outside working hours can have a really serious reputational impact on your employer. Individuals, like McClean, with high profiles in the community should be aware of this. It won’t be the last time that we read about someone who is deemed to be a role model – a teacher or a sporting personality – who misbehaves outside work and pays the price for this type of behaviour.

A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/story/james-mcclean-irish-footballer-fined-for-balaclava-childrens-history-lesson-post-11964664

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/02/youre-never-off-duty/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/08/different-standards/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/03/the-limits-of-privacy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/09/03/facebook-folly/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/05/im-a-political-activist-dont-sack-me/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/20/social-media-and-dismissal/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/11/social-media-misuse/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/09/drunk-and-disorderly/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/07/it-happened-outside-work-or-its-my-private-life/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 2 April 2020

The limits of privacy

Photo by Tony Liao on Unsplash

Several of my previous blogs (It happened outside work … (or it’s my private life!) published on 7 February 2019; Social Media Misuse published on 11 April 2019; and Social media and dismissal published on 20 May 2019) have addressed the issue of whether employees have a right to privacy in the work-place.

The short answer is yes and no: privacy is not an absolute right.

Privacy in the work-place is becoming more of an issue thanks to the widespread use of social media by employees outwith working hours (and, of course, during the working day).

If you’re working in the public sector (and this, potentially, covers a large number of employees), Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights i.e. the right to family and private life could be particularly relevant to your situation.

Even if you’re employed by a private sector organisation, Article 8 rights are still relevant because they are ultimately guaranteed by the State (the United Kingdom) as a signatory to the European Convention. Furthermore, there are all sorts of situations where private sector organisations may be regarded as ’emanations/entities of the State’ because they carry out some type of work or provide a service which is beneficial to the wider public (think utilities companies or those organisations which benefit from outsourced contracts from local and central government).

Regular readers of this blog will know, of course, that provisions of the European Convention have been incorporated into Scots Law via the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Employers, quite rightly, may have legitimate concerns about the type of content or statements that their employees post on social media platforms – especially if such material could cause the organisation to suffer some sort of reputational damage.

In such circumstances, it’s simply not a competent defence for employees to argue that disciplinary action (up to and including dismissal) which might be taken by their employers represents unwarranted interference in their private lives.

That said, it is very important for employers to set out clear guidelines and policies covering social media (mis)use by employees during and outwith working hours. There is a balancing exercise to be had here between the legitimate interests of the employer and the employee.

So, it was with some interest that I read about a case before the Outer House of the Court of Session during the summer which dealt with the boundaries of employee privacy (see Petition of B, C and Others v Chief Constable Police Service of Scotland and Others [2019] CSOH 48).

Lord Bannatyne rejected the Petition for judicial review lodged by a number of serving Police Scotland officers who were accused of (non-criminal) misconduct by their employer. These officers had allegedly used the WhatsApp social media platform to exchange a number of messages between them which were deemed to be offensive in nature and not in keeping with their role as serving members of Police Scotland.

Police Scotland wished to access the content of these messages in order to progress the misconduct hearings, but the officers involved in the disciplinary investigation argued that this constituted a breach of their human rights – specifically their rights to privacy Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. More generally, the officers were also arguing that they had the right to privacy at common law.

His Lordship highlighted the significance of the important decision of the European Court of Human Rights: Von Hannover v Germany [2005] 40 EHRR 1 to the case before him.

Von Hannover raises three important considerations:

“… the width of the concept of private life; the purpose of Article 8, i.e. what it seeks to protect; and the need to examine the particular circumstances of the case in order to decide whether, consonant with that purpose, the applicant had a legitimate expectation of protection in relation to the subject matter of his complaint.”

The key issue which Lord Bannatyne identifies from Von Hannover, is whether the Scottish police officers “had a legitimate expectation of protection” in terms of Article 8; or to draw upon a phrase later formulated by UK Supreme Court Justice, Lord Toulson: “a legitimate expectation of privacy” (see In re JR38 2016 AC 1131).

In rejecting the officers’ petition, Lord Bannatyne focused on the existence of the Standards of Professional Behaviour contained in Schedule 1 to the 2014 Regulations to which all serving Police officers must adhere (in particular the officers had sworn an oath to uphold these Standards both while on and off duty).

His Lordship stated:

There is a restriction on police officers’ private life and therefore their expectation of privacy. … It is only in relation to these matters that there is a limitation on the officer’s privacy it is not a whole scale intrusion into his private life. Accordingly to achieve the underlying purpose of the Standards, namely: the maintenance of public confidence in the police, police officers have a limitation on their expectation of privacy as above described.

A link to Lord Banntyne’s judgement can be found below:

A link to how the story was reported by BBC Scotland can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-48799289

As a point of interest, several days after Lord Bannatyne’s judgement was reported, the BBC carried a story about United States Border Patrol officers who were suspended from employment for posting offensive remarks about migrants (and other individuals) on Facebook.

A link to this story can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-48834824

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 3 December 2019

Social media and dismissal

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

Regular readers of this Blog will know that I have written several articles over the last few months about the legal consequences of social media (mis)use and the effects on relationships in the work place. Comments or images posted on social media by employees can have serious reputational consequences for their employers.

The Israel Folau case

In a blog published on 11 April 2019 (Social Media Misuse), I discussed the story about Israel Folau, the Australian rugby player who had posted homophobic comments on social media. Folau has now been dismissed by Australia for these remarks.

Please see a link to the story on the Sky News website:

Israel Folau: Australian rugby star sacked over anti-gay social media post
http://news.sky.com/story/israel-folau-australian-rugby-star-sacked-over-anti-gay-social-media-post-11721930

The employer must, of course, be able to prove reasonably that the employee’s misuse of social media will cause it to suffer reputational damage.

In Taylor Somerfield Stores Ltd ETS/107487/07 an employee was dismissed after posting a video on Youtube which involved a mock fight using Somerfield carrier bags in the work place. The video was uploaded to Youtube for a mere 3 days and only 8 people had viewed it – 3 of whom were managers conducting the disciplinary investigation. The Employment Tribunal was firmly of the view that the dismissal was unfair because the employer was not able to prove that it had suffered serious reputational damage.

As I have emphasised in previous blogs, employees will be very naive if they think that it is a competent defence to say that the social media posts occurred outside working hours. Employers are still very much entitled to treat such behaviour as an example of a breach of work place discipline. In serious cases of social media misuse, employers will be entitled to consider dismissal of employees on the grounds of misconduct (as per Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Admittedly, this area represents something of a tightrope for employers to walk: they will have to operate a clear and comprehensive social media policy and employees must be made aware of any restrictions or expectations.

In the unreported Employment Tribunal decision of Grant and Ross Mitie Property Services Ltd (2009), the employer had a policy which restricted employee internet access. Unfortunately, for the employer, the phrase which permitted employee’s personal use of the internet to times that were “outside core working hours”, was deemed by the Tribunal to be ‘vague’ and lacking in certainty. This meant that the employees who had been dismissed because the employer was of the view that they had breached its policy on internet use had been unfairly dismissed.

There is also the matter of the rights that employees reasonably have to privacy and freedom of expression (as per their Article 8 and 10 rights respectively to be found in the European Convention, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998) (see Bărbulescu v Romania Application no. 61496/08 5 September 2017; and Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2012] EWHC 3221 (Ch)).

I have also pointed out in previous blogs, the importance for employers in carrying out disciplinary proceedings which comply with current ACAS Guidance. Using the (current) ACAS Guidance is a critical risk management exercise for employers:

https://beta.acas.org.uk/investigations-for-discipline-and-grievance-step-by-step

Employers who act recklessly or swiftly and ignore proper procedures may well have cause to regret their actions down the road. As Sir Robert Megarry VC, the eminent English judge, remarked decades ago in John Rees [1970] 1 Ch 345:

When something is obvious, they may say, why force everyone to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard?As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; …

The above remarks are as valid in 2019 as they were in Sir Robert Megarry’s day.

Atherton v Bensons Vending Ltd ET/2411749/2018

This is a recent decision of the Manchester Employment Tribunal which raises some very interesting issues about employee use of social media specifically and the conduct of disciplinary proceedings more generally.

Darren Atherton (aged 55) worked for Bensons Vending Ltd, a small company. As a result of his employer making changes to its discretionary Christmas bonus scheme, Atherton made some very negative comments about the company’s Managing Director, Ken Haselden via a colleague’s Facebook page:

Comment 1

We’ve all just bought Ken a new dog with our Christmas bonus!!!”

Comment 2

“He spends a few grand on a new dog then we get told ‘no bonus this year’ but we can have a bottle!!! 

Comment 3

“Well, he can stick his bottle where the sun doesn’t shine because I refuse to be insulted in this way!!!

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull had initially objected to the changes to the bonus scheme by posting comments on his Facebook page:

Comment 1

Just when you thought staff morale couldn’t get any worse, hey f***ing presto #insult #disgusted.”

Comment 2

The only difference between McDonalds and where I work is McDonalds has only one clown running the show.” (This second comment was accompanied by a picture of Ronald McDonald).

The changes to the bonus scheme were part of a cost cutting and efficiency savings exercise by the company and, from any reading of the above comments, Atherton and Minshull clearly disagreed with this new approach by their employer.

Negative remarks about the Managing Director were also made by Atherton and another colleague in the workplace. Several colleagues informed Haselden about these remarks stating that they had been very aggressive and vitriolic in nature.

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull, was subsequently questioned about the posts on his Facebook account by Haselden. Minshull stated that he did not agree with them – they were Atherton’s opinions – and he apologised for any offence caused to Haselden. He was later suspended for the Facebook posts, but critically this suspension was lifted in the light of his swift apology to Haselden (and the fact that it was established that he had not made these comments). Minshull was permitted to return to work upon the conclusion of the disciplinary proceedings against him.

Atherton was called to a meeting with Mr Haselden in December 2017 to address the allegations which had been made against him and to investigate the social media posts. This was not a disciplinary meeting, but more in the way of an investigatory meeting. The actual disciplinary meeting took place in January 2018.

Dismissal without notice pay

The outcome of the disciplinary meeting was that Atherton should be dismissed without notice pay for gross misconduct in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This was despite the fact that Atherton had a clean disciplinary record (until now) and had enjoyed a good relationship with his employer. Atherton’s comments on Facebook were “extremely derogatory” and Mr Haselden stated that he would find it “extremely difficult” to continue working with him. Atherton appealed against his dismissal, but the decision was upheld.

The fairness of the disciplinary proceedings

As part of his claim against the employer, Atherton challenged the fairness of the disciplinary proceedings taken against him. In particular, he objected to the fact that Haselden conducted the disciplinary meeting against him. Atherton’s contention was that he would not receive a fair hearing because Haselden was personally involved in the matter and, therefore, could not be relied upon to act objectively. This type of issue frequently arises where smaller employers are concerned. In an ideal world, a manager (such as Haselden) who has been involved personally in an issue involving alleged breaches of work place discipline should not be a participant in the disciplinary panel. This is, of course, easier in practice to ensure in larger organisations where there is a pool of experienced managers who will have had no personal involvement in the matter (or in other words: a particular axe to grind).

The appeals process

In situations involving smaller employers, this is where the appeals process takes on a critical significance. Appeals can often be used to cure actual or perceived defects in the conduct of the original disciplinary meeting. Although Haselden (with two others – an operations manager and a company engineer) had conducted the disciplinary meetings, he had not involved himself in the actual appeals hearing. This part of the company’s disciplinary procedure had been conducted by a Ms Pedley, a trained auditor and, as stated, above, Atherton’s dismissal was upheld.

At this point, Atherton also raised the difference in treatment between himself and Simon Minshull (who had kept his job after disciplinary proceedings against him had been concluded). Pedley refused to comment on individual cases on the grounds of confidentiality. She stated in her letter to Atherton upholding the dismissal that:

Length of service and clean disciplinary record are taken into consideration during all grievance procedures. However, given the
nature of the comment and the reluctance to remedy the grievance the
relationship between yourself and senior management has broken down
irretrievably”.

The Employment Tribunal’s decision

The Tribunal held that Atherton had been fairly dismissed in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

He had made extremely derogatory comments via Facebook about Haselden. They were “personal” and they suggested “some impropriety” on Mr Haselden’s part (though more in the nature of “penny-pinching impropriety” suggesting Scrooge like behaviour rather than any financial misdeeds). Any member of the public who knew the company and reading Atherton’s comments on Simon Minshull’s Facebook site, would have a very negative view of Haselden. It was accepted by the Tribunal that Haselden would, therefore, potentially suffer reputational damage. It was also accepted that in a small company, it would be very difficult for Atherton and Haselden to work with one another again (the employment relationship had irretrievably broken down).

The Tribunal also addressed Atherton’s claim that the disciplinary procedure had been biased or lacking in objectivity because of Haselden’s involvement in the decision to dismiss him from employment. This indeed could have been a problem for the employer and may have prejudiced proceedings against Atherton. That said, however, the saving grace for the employer was the fact that Ms Pedley had been kept in reserve for an appeal hearing.

The Employment Tribunal Judge made the following observations about Pedley’s involvement in the appeal stage:

Ms Pedley is by profession an auditor and had clearly gone through the matters in great detail. Notes (page 95 and onwards) show how she dealt with the matter. … Because of that safeguard of the deployment of Ms Pedley, who I am satisfied went about her task objectively and exhaustively and independently, although regrettably for the claimant she came to the same conclusion, I am not satisfied that the determination by Mr Haselden at the dismissal stage rendered the dismissal unfair. The appeal was thorough, it was a re-hearing. Ms Pedley considered all the points that were being raised and came, I am satisfied, to an independent conclusion.”

As for the difference in outcomes between Atherton and Simon Minshull, a key justification for this was that Minshull had “apologised shortly after being challenged regarding his Facebook comments even though he had been suspended.” This was something that Atherton had failed to do – apologising only at the disciplinary meeting in January 2018. Furthermore, it was significant that the nature of Atherton’s comments were specifically directed against Haselden, whereas Minshull’s comments (although also negative) were much more generalised.

The failure to pay notice pay

This was an aspect of the employer’s decision that the Employment Tribunal disagreed with. Atherton, therefore, had a right to receive his entitlement to notice pay. In this sense, he had been wrongly dismissed by his employer. The Employment Tribunal judge stated very clearly that in order for an employee to lose his entitlement to notice pay there the employer must be able to demonstrate that the gross misconduct complained of crosses over a “very high hurdle”. In the judge’s opinion, the employer had not been able to overcome this hurdle and, therefore, Atherton was entitled to claim notice pay.

A link to the Employment Tribunal’s judgement in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5c4712dfe5274a6e6b6716e1/Mr_D_Atherton_v_Bensons_Vending_Limited_-_2411749_2018_-_Reasons.pdf

Conclusion

What have we learned about the decision of the Employment Tribunal in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd?

Quite a lot actually:

  1. Employees will have to be extremely careful when posting material or comments on social media platforms – irrespective of whether this is about the employers or not.
  2. The case is yet another good example that misconduct committed inside or outside the work place or working hours can have reputational consequences for the employer. It can also lead to relationships in the work place breaking down irretrievably (especially in smaller organisations).
  3. Employers do not have a free hand to police employee use of social media. There must be clear guidelines laid down by the employer as to what constitutes acceptable and appropriate behaviour. At the same, employees have reasonable expectations that their rights to privacy and expression (as per the European Convention on Human Rights) will be upheld.
  4. The conduct of disciplinary proceedings by the employer is a critical issue. We have noted that potential conflicts of interest can occur in smaller employers or organisations where a manager can be investigator, dismissing officer and appeals officer. How does the employer address these issues and ensure objectivity in the disciplinary process?
  5. As with Atherton and Minshull, the employer was entitled to treat them differently: Atherton was dismissed while Minshull retained his job. There was nothing inconsistent or inherently unfair about this when the personal circumstances and behaviour of the two employees was examined.
  6. Finally, even in situations where gross misconduct has been proved by the employer, and the dismissal is deemed to be fair (in terms of Section 98(4): Employment Rights Act 1996), it will not necessarily mean that the employee loses his or her right to notice pay. The employer will have to overcome an extremely high hurdle in order to be entitled to invoke such a disciplinary sanction. As we have seen in Atherton, the Tribunal was not convinced that the employer had been able to prove that this was an appropriate punishment: the dismissal was fair; the failure to pay notice was not.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 May 2019