As the country gears up for a summer of football related mayhem, spirits will be running high both at home and abroad.
The heady combination of 500,000 UK football fans, age-old rivalries and the enduring reputation of ‘boozed-up Brits abroad’ have clearly presented a headache for authorities working out how best to control bad behaviour during the Euro 2016 tournament.
Rumours abound that there will be an alcohol ban for the 24 hours that the Welsh and English fans descend on Lens, and clashes in Marseilles ahead of England’s opener against Russia appear to confirm the cause for concern.
Football fans will be aware of the headlines declaring that security will be on an “extraordinary scale”, giving some flavour of the potential criminal repercussions that violent or racist behaviour may have for them.
Caution advisable on social media
However, many may not recognise that any misdemeanours abroad could also have implications for them back in the workplace, with caution advisable when taking to social media.
As tempting as it may be for employees to regard their private life as nothing to do with their employer, this is not the case. An employer is entitled to take action against an employee for conduct outside the workplace which affects the employment relationship.
The courts recognise that an employer must be able to take steps to preserve its reputation and key business relationships which may be damaged by the negative actions of its employees.
This right to take disciplinary action and potentially dismiss as a result extends to damage caused by an employee’s presence and behaviour online through the use of their social media accounts.
When can an employer take action?
So how far does this right extend for employers? The starting point is that there is no blanket right to take disciplinary action or dismiss an employee for posting aggressive, racist or otherwise inappropriate comments on social media.
However, if such comments cause an employer to be linked – unwittingly or not – to them, there is potential for a corporate image to suffer and key relationships to be jeopardised. And, if that is deemed to be the case, an employer would be perfectly entitled to consider taking disciplinary action.
As with all disciplinary action taken against employees, much will depend on the specific circumstances of the case. Factors such as the size and scope of an employee’s social media will be relevant – although even ‘private’ messages are not necessarily immune from scrutiny.
Similarly, the nature of an employee’s role, and the type of work they do within an organisation, will come into play.
Have a social media policy in place
For employers, the single most important consideration is having a proper, clear social media policy in place. If an employer can demonstrate that employees have been made aware of what is expected of them regarding their use of social channels in and out of the workplace, it will be far easier to justify taking action.
Clearly for employees, the safest course of action is to assume that any comments they post on social media could be made public. They also need to remain aware that disciplinary action could be taken against them as a result – and that they could even lose their job.
Just as with conduct on social media, an employer is not automatically entitled to discipline an employee who has engaged in violent behaviour at a football match – even if this led to the employee’s arrest.
However, the employer can consider whether a conviction for violence has so significantly affected the employment relationship that keeping them on has become impossible. This might be the case particularly for employees working in positions of trust involving children or vulnerable adults, for example.
Even where employees have not broken the law or posted online themselves, dismissals do happen. Take the sobering third-party footage of the Chelsea fans involved in racist chanting on the Paris Metro that went viral, spilling into national media via horrified headlines and appearing on national broadcast news bulletins.
Although these fans were not acting in any work-based capacity or posting films themselves, some of them were dismissed by their employers as a direct result of the huge publicity and naming and shaming that followed.
Hopefully the Euros will prove a wonderful celebration of the beautiful game, with no need for red cards on the pitch or off when employees return to work.
Louise Price is a partner and specialist employment lawyer with Hugh James in Cardiff