The High Court has awarded damages of just £98 to a claimant demoted for expressing his personal views on gay marriage via Facebook. The claimant, Mr Smith, was an employee of Trafford Housing Trust and was held by the Court to have been demoted in breach of his contract of employment, for the following reasons:
- It was clear that Mr Smith’s comments about gay marriage which he had posted on his Facebook wall were not work related or posted on the Trust’s behalf. No reasonable reader of the Facebook wall could rationally conclude that Mr Smith’s comments on gay marriage were connected with work, as other posts related to sport, food and motor vehicles.
- To sustain diversity in the workplace, the Trust had to employ persons with a variety of different religious and political beliefs. No reasonable reader of the Facebook wall could think the worst of the Trust for having Mr Smith as an employee, given the moderate expression of his personal views on his personal Facebook wall at a weekend not in working hours.
- The Trust’s disciplinary policies were not triggered in this case as Facebook had not taken on a sufficiently work related context. Each of Mr Smith’s Facebook friends had made the decision to be his friend on Facebook and seek his views.
- The content and tone of Mr Smith’s postings on gay marriage were not objectively judgemental, disrespectful or likely to cause upset, offence, discomfort or embarrassment.
As Mr Smith’s demotion was held to be a case of wrongful dismissal, his damages were limited to financial loss during the contractual notice period. In this case the amount was just £98 since Mr Smith had taken on another lower paid job with the Trust. The financial compensation was very limited since there was no unfair dismissal claim as Mr Smith had not brought his claim in the employment tribunal.
Key Point: Employers should take care when assessing an employee’s Facebook use as gross misconduct and should seek legal advice on enforcing social media policies.
Smith v Trafford Housing Trust