This recent High Court judgment serves as a cautionary tale for employees using their work email accounts to send personal messages.
The claimant, Mr Williams - a former Technical Director at Leeds United Football Club, was initially made redundant but was summarily dismissed after his employer found that, over five years previously, he had forwarded an email containing “obscene and pornographic material” to a junior female employee and two friends who were working at other football clubs.
Mr Williams claimed that the emails to his friends were to cheer them up, and that the female employee would “appreciate the play on words” (the email was headed “Looks like dirty Leeds!”) as she was a fan of the team.
It was held that the forwarding of the email to the trio amounted to a sufficiently serious breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence, and therefore the club was entitled to dismiss Mr Williams without notice.
He had used his work email account to forward the images, which contained the phrase ‘leedsunited’. It was held that this could have caused negative press coverage, affecting the clubs ability to find or retain sponsors, which would hurt it financially.
Furthermore, the judge stated that had the email been forwarded to the female employee only, that would have been enough in itself to amount to a repudiatory breach, as it may well have caused offence and left the club open to a sexual harassment claim.
The club had used a forensic investigator to find a way of not having to pay Mr Williams’ notice, however the judge found that an employer is entitled to rely on a repudiatory breach of contract regardless of its motives.
Essentially, if an employee has done something that amounts to a repudiatory breach, it is likely that their employer will be able to rely on it.