Loose lips recently hit the headlines when England manager Sam Allardyce stepped down from his role by mutual agreement, following a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph which resulted in him being caught on camera offering questionable services in return for cash.
While most of us are not quite interesting enough to be the subject of a media sting, it does highlight the fact that sometimes just one conversation can be enough for you to lose your job. It has never been easier for a comment you later regret to come back to haunt you; whether it’s on email, recorded on a mobile phone or in the social media ether.
But when is it legal for an employer to fire you for an ill-advised remark – and what other consequences could there be?
Whether you can be fairly dismissed for comments which could damage your employer’s reputation depends partly on whether your employer has a written policy on social media use or protection of its brand and reputation.
Virtually all major employers now have detailed policies dealing with this. So, for example, mild (if expletive-riddled) criticism of Apple’s MobileMe app was enough to justify the dismissal of one Apple employee, based on the company “Credo” which it distributed to all employees and which emphasised that protection of its brand was paramount.
At the other end of the spectrum, abusive or discriminatory comments about colleagues or comments which are shown to have damaged a client relationship are likely to justify dismissal.
Offensive comments unrelated to work may also get you into hot water (as lawyer Clive O’Connell found when he was sacked after calling Liverpool FC supporters “scouse scum”), but expressing a personal view that your colleagues or clients disagree with is unlikely in itself to justify dismissal; the courts have started to give much more weight to an employee’s freedom of expression, providing that you don’t use offensive or discriminatory language.
Breaches of confidentiality, on the other hand, are likely to justify dismissal in most cases, particularly if you disclose personal data relating to staff or clients. Confidentiality breaches can also have career-ending regulatory implications if you work in an FCA-approved role or other regulated profession, or if you disclose price-sensitive information – and in some cases could even lead to criminal liability. In these cases, you may be best served by disclosing a breach promptly to your employer to minimise the damage – and to avoid the risk of being seen as dishonest. However, specialist advice may be wise, particularly where there are potential criminal implications.
Avoid the trap
Bearing the above in mind, here are four takeaway tips to avoid falling into similar traps.
1) Make sure you understand (and use) the privacy settings on social media sites – but understand that nothing you post online is truly private: posts may be shared without your knowledge.
2) Many of us use social media to promote ourselves professionally – but it may be preferable to have a separate account (possibly under a different name) if you want to express opinions on current affairs.
3) If you do need to talk to journalists, bloggers or public relations professionals in your role, request a copy of your employer’s written policy/guidelines on dealing with the media, and ensure you are clear on the context in which you are speaking: is it on your employer’s behalf and are you on the record?
4) Be ultra-careful when it comes to confidential information belonging to your employer, particularly when it concerns clients, staff or information which could impact ongoing deals.
£Jane Amphlett is a partner and head of employment at law firm Howard Kennedy.