Stockbroker Rayhan Qadar caused something of a Twitter storm at the beginning of last week when he tweeted “Think I just hit a cyclist. But I’m late for work so had to drive off lol.” Within hours his tweet had gone viral and the local police had become involved, appealing for any victims to come forward. It later transpired that the tweet had been a joke and Mr Qadar attempted to rectify his mistake: “My previous tweet about the cyclist was obviously not true. I did not hit cyclist. Not today. Not ever. A bad joke on my part it seems.” But by then the damage had been done. His employer, Hargreaves Lansdown, declared his actions “unacceptable” and dismissed him with immediate effect. A joke in bad taste, indeed, but did an error of judgment (in less than 140 characters) really warrant his summary dismissal?

The comment itself had no impact on his ability to do the job, it was a joke (albeit a misguided one) and Mr Qadar subsequently apologised for his actions. But perhaps by that point it was already too late. An employee boasting about a hit-and-run (even in jest) could hardly be described as an asset to his employer and arguably his actions brought his employer into disrepute, particularly given the very public medium via which his comments had been aired.

Publically there has been a lot of support for the decision taken by Hargreaves Lansdown. The Telegraph reported various criticisms from other Twitter users including “Dear oh dear, you ignorant p***k, hopefully you won’t have a job to get to by the end of the day, enjoy going to court £Scum” and“Some people don’t deserve to be on our roads. You obviously don’t have a brain as you actually tweeted this to the world.” Praise indeed and in such measured terms that one can tell in an instant that the authors have never themselves made a bad joke or needed forgiveness for doing something foolish. You wonder what would be left in their lexicon for something actually material.

Others, however, take a very different view. A petition has been set up in support of Mr Qadar’s actions: “In a country of free speech, we should be able to tweet jokes, whether in bad taste without worrying if we’ll lose our jobs because of it. This wasn’t even offensive, threatening, nor illegal. Yet such drastic action was taken due to pressure. Give Ray justice.” As at 7 January 2015 the petition had 500 signatories. Interestingly, his brother (one of the petition’s signatories) claimed that Mr Qadar was walking to work at the time and that the company had failed to investigate the incident fully. Mr Qadar refers to “driving off” in the offending tweet, but perhaps Mr Qadar was ‘joking’ about driving to work too? Fraternal loyalty is of course admirable but whether Mr Qadar was driving, walking or going by bus is of course completely immaterial once it is understood that the issue is not whether he did drive away from an accident but whether tweeting that he had done so reflected badly enough on his employer to justify his instant dismissal. 

In my view the fairly clear answer to this is no. If after a much-deserved carpeting at work and his tweeted retraction matters had been left to lie then public attention would have moved on to pillory the next person making a fool of themselves on social media within a few hours. It is easy to think that Hargreaves Lansdown has, as a matter of law, over-reacted here. Yes, his tweet shows Mr Qadar to lack certain, er, filters in the self-awareness stakes and yes, he should have been given an unforgettable disciplinary rocket by his bosses, but dismissal for making bad jokes is treading a pretty thin line in legal terms given the absence of any victim, the easy explanation and the prompt retraction. Late night quiz shows on television contain far more gratuitous and personal affront than this, almost as a matter of course. 

The use of social media, both personally and professionally, has exploded in recent years, but this latest story serves as a reminder to employees (or indeed anyone who does not wish to appear in the tabloid press) that posting anything on a social media site that others might find offensive or in bad taste (even if it is non-discriminatory and rapidly revealed as a load of codswallop) could potentially have more far-reaching consequences than a loss of followers on Twitter. Indeed, in this gentleman’s case, a loss of his employment.

Perhaps by way of consolation we could immortalise Mr Qadar in the annals of legal thinking through the coining of a new “man on the Clapham omnibus”: how about “Qadar’s cyclist” (n) – a non-existent person who is not hurt in an accident which doesn’t happen and thereby causes material damage to someone who wasn’t there?