Do you know your Charmanders from your Bulbasaurs? Did you have a preferred method for catching Snorlax? Was your favourite move Hydro Pump?
If you have any idea what I am talking about, excellent. If not, please be assured that I am reminiscing about the nineties/noughties phenomenon that was Pokémon and do not require the medical assistance that these questions might otherwise suggest.
I am reminiscing because, as you may have seen, they are back! To say that the new Pokémon game is huge would be a horrible understatement, with millions of people worldwide downloading and playing the game.
However, some unlucky souls have not been able to get access. For example, at the time of writing, the game is not available in Singapore. Sonny Truyen, an Australian working there as an expat was rather miffed by this and took to Facebook to express his views. He decided the country as a whole was at fault and so criticised Singapore itself, with an eloquent dash of social media profanity, then accused its people of being stupid and claimed that the average IQ would fall if he left the country. After some understandably peeved nationals became involved, this outburst wound its way back to his Singapore employer, which promptly sacked him.
Mr Truyen is unsurprisingly reported as accepting afterwards that “it was a very big error in judgment to negatively label an entire country over Pokémon”, (what, really?) though this may be little reassurance for any prospective employer, bearing in mind his role as SEO specialist.
Some employers and some countries are more willing than others to let this sort of thing go. Some might just have taken the view that “negatively labelling an entire country over Pokémon” said far more about Mr Truyen than it did about Singapore. But what if he had been your employee sounding off about all or some part of your local community?
There are a whole range of inflammatory topics that can be plastered all over TwitFaceSnapInstaTube (not a new app, just a space-saving measure). The UK is currently coming to terms with the recent Brexit vote and associated political musical chairs, along with all of the social and racial tensions that have arisen as a side-dish. People clearly have very strong views, which may well lead to heated debate on social media. Given this context, what if you receive complaints that one of your employees has been ranting on social media? What if he has insulted or upset people with racist comments or “ordinary” abusive language? Can you follow the approach of the Singaporean company and simply sack him?
Only actions serious enough to constitute gross misconduct are likely to justify summary dismissal (unless there are previous warnings still active). Clearly, if the rant takes place in a professional context, there are likely to be good grounds for gross misconduct. For example, using a LinkedIn or Twitter profile which is clearly linked to the employer will come under employment auspices – actual or potential clients are likely to see the comments, may potentially be insulted and the employer’s reputation will likely be damaged as a result.
However, many social networks are totally personal in nature. You may have a Facebook or Twitter account which contains no reference whatsoever to your employer or your job. If such comments are made on this type of platform, but you as employer become aware of them anyway – whether through a tip off from a Facebook friend of the accused who is also your employee (a frequent occurrence), or a particularly enraged reader who has stalked your ranting employee to find out his workplace– what can you do?
This may well depend on the seriousness and context of what was actually said. A heated debate regarding the rights or wrongs of Brexit, potential leaders of the Labour Party or a nuclear deterrent is rather different from a racist attack on an individual or a group. The latter is clearly serious enough that it traverses the line between personal and professional and between lawful and unlawful. But even if the words used were strictly lawful, you can legitimately consider how far, when work colleagues become aware of such an incident, they can reasonably be expected to continue working with that individual. This could be highly damaging to the working environment and could very well be the basis of a fair dismissal.
This is in addition to the usual considerations of whether your company’s external reputation is damaged, where the incident and employer identity becomes public knowledge or goes ‘viral’, such as our Pokémon friend, and whether the conduct, even if not unlawful, nonetheless says something so damaging to the individual’s own professional credibility or judgment that he could no longer be seen as a safe pair of hands. All an issue of context, of course, but if you sell the judgment and discretion of your staff to your clients, it would not be hard for an employee to make himself irretrievably damaged goods in this way:
However, always be sure that you have investigated fully and followed reasonable disciplinary/dismissal process. Context will always be important and there may be factors relating to the accused that you cannot ignore, such as provocation or illegitimate access to his social media accounts.