The flow of Facebook cases continues unabated with employees' desire to get themselves into trouble at work with inappropriate postings seemingly unabated. One of the battlegrounds concerns where the line is between what one does on what is essentially a personal, non-work related platform and what impact this has on one's work relationships. In the recent case of Teggart v TeleTech UK Limited, an employee dismissed for posting comments about a colleague in his own time, tried to allege his employer breached his fundamental human rights by relying on those comments. Did he succeed? The only way to find out is to read more...
Mr Teggart worked in the Belfast call centre of TeleTech UK Limited (“TeleTech”). He posted an obscene comment in respect of a female colleague on his Facebook page from his home. This comment specifically mentioned TeleTech. Although the colleague in question was blocked from viewing the comment she heard about it and asked for it to be removed. However, this only prompted Teggart to add a further obscene comment. Being the respectable legal practice that we are, we will not repeat either comment here, but, in overview, the first comment concerned the colleague's sexual promiscuity and the second comment referred to a farmyard animal.
The matter was later brought to the attention of TeleTech who dismissed Teggart for gross misconduct.
Teggart appealed the decision stating that his comments were meant as a joke and that he had not intended to harass his colleague, but rather to “generate a vulgar distaste” for her - well that's alright then?! He contended that TeleTech had not followed a proper disciplinary process as they had only investigated the complaint after his disciplinary hearing. He further complained that he had been deprived of his rights under Articles 8 (right to a private life), 9 (right to freedom of thought and belief) and 10 (right to free expression) of the ECHR.
Following further investigation, his appeal was dismissed and Teggart complained to the Northern Ireland industrial tribunal.
The tribunal dismissed the claim holding that TeleTech's disciplinary panel had acted reasonably in its finding of harassment as Teggart's comments satisfied the definition in TeleTech’s dignity at work policy. The cumulative effect of the vulgar nature of the posting, the stated intention to create a vulgar distaste for the female colleague, the unsavoury reaction to her pleas to remove the posting and the sharing of the comments with colleagues was such as to place the sanction of dismissal within the range of reasonable responses. The tribunal also confirmed that harassment need not involve comments made directly to a victim; it may be brought about through comments to others.
Teggart's claims under the ECHR were also dismissed. By making his comments on Facebook, he abandoned his right to consider his comments to be private. Even though the relevant page was only open to "friends" the comments could easily be copied and passed on to others. The right to “belief” in Article 9 was not engaged, as it should not be construed as meaning a belief about another person’s promiscuity. Furthermore, the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 must be exercised responsibly - Theresa May would love this comment!
The decision confirms that offensive comments made on social media can justify dismissal for gross misconduct even if they are made outside work. If you haven't already then you should take this opportunity to remind employees to give a little more consideration to what you “Like” on Facebook. Otherwise you could be justified in giving them a fatal “poke”...