It’s not often that you get the chance to write about football teams in an employment news blog, but luckily for me, certain media reports about Chelsea’s fans and the dismissal of a Leeds United senior executive have given me a good excuse this week.
The pictures of the Chelsea fans in Paris preventing a passenger from boarding the train due to his race were featured in every major newspaper recently. One headline that stood out was ‘Find jail and sack them all’*. Which from an employment law perspective begged the question what would happen if an employer read this and having recognised one of their employees in the picture sacked them? Would it be an unfair dismissal?
Well the first thing to highlight is that it’s not the first time that the media has demanded employers dismiss badly behaved football fans. During the World Cup in 1998 ugly scenes involving England football fans were broadcast on television, leading to several national newspapers conducting name-and-shame campaigns against the individuals involved. Even the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called on employers to take severe action against them. This led to the dismissal of several employees and one claim for unfair dismissal reaching the Court of Appeal**.
The finding in the Tribunal had been that the dismissal was unfair because the newspapers and Mr Blair had unfairly influenced the employer’s decision. However, the Court of Appeal pointed out that it was the unacceptable behaviour of the fans that came first and that had caused the press uproar, brought the employer’s name into disrepute and ultimately caused the dismissal.
Of course, what will be necessary is to ensure that in every case the employer acts reasonably. If the reason for dismissal is the damage to its reputation is there evidence to support that from clients, customers or continued media coverage? If it is in relation to the individual’s conduct has there been a reasonable investigation? Are there reasonable grounds to believe that the employee was involved in the misconduct?
One of the things about dealing with gross misconduct is that it can lead to summary dismissal, which means that the employer doesn’t need to pay the employee any notice monies, a fact that takes us to the issue at the heart of last week’s High Court case regarding Leeds United Football Club***.
One of the Club’s technical directors, on a salary of £200,000 per annum had been given notice that his post was no longer required following a restructure. His contract provided that he was entitled to a notice period of 12-months. One week into that notice period he was told that his contract was to come to an end with immediate effect due to gross misconduct. The Club had discovered that in early 2008, some five and a half years ago, he had forwarded an email titled ‘Looks like dirty Leeds!!’ with several pornographic images attached from his work computer.
The director brought a claim in the High Court that he wanted the rest of his notice pay and other benefits totalling some £250,000. He denied that the email amounted to gross misconduct and suggested that the Club had trawled through his emails to look for a way out of paying him his notice.
However, his claim was dismissed. Sending a pornographic email on the work computer was simply incompatible with his role and duties as a senior manager at the Club and amounted to a sufficiently serious breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence as to entitle the Club to dismiss him without notice.
Again, the risk of damage to the reputation of the employer was an important factor. If the email had been leaked out it would have generated negative press coverage which could have affected the Club’s ability to find or retain sponsors and supporters. Potentially though, the decision could have wider implications. This is not just a reminder of the importance of having a policy regulating the use of IT in the workplace, it is also an effective demonstration of how email and IT records can come back to haunt even the most senior personnel.
*Metro 18 February 2015
**Post Office v Liddiard  EWCA Civ 940
***Williams v Leeds United Football Club EWHC 376 (QB)