The Impact of out of hours conduct on employment relationships

Fri 20th Nov 2015

International law firm, Goldberg Segalla has decided to terminate its partnership with lawyer, Clive O’Connell following offensive comments made by Mr O’Connell in the aftermath of a Liverpool v Chelsea football match. The incident highlights the impact that conduct outside of work can have on an employment relationship.

Mr O’Connell, a Chelsea fan, was interviewed by Neeks Sport following Liverpool’s victory on 31 October 2015. During the interview Mr O’Connell referred to Liverpool supporters as “scouse scum” and “scouse idiots”. Mr O’Connell is alleged to have made further comments directed at Liverpool fans via social media, telling fans to “crawl back to your horrible Merseyside home.”

Despite a subsequent apology by Mr O’Connell, Goldberg Segalla announced that it would be terminating its partnership with Mr O’Connell effective immediately. The firm described Mr O’Connell’s comments as “offensive” and “inconsistent with our ethos” concluding that his conduct did not “rise to the standards to which the law firm holds itself.”

Mr O’Connell was held out as a partner of Goldberg Segalla. It is not clear whether he had employee status.

Conduct outside of work

This case demonstrates that an employer may be entitled to take disciplinary action against an employee for conduct which occurred entirely outside of the workplace. In cases of gross misconduct, this could ultimately result in dismissal.

For this type of dismissal to be considered fair, an employer should be able to show (amongst other things) that the conduct in question was in some way connected to, or had an impact on, the employment relationship. Conduct which is deemed to be dishonest, violent, or discriminatory in nature is likely to be considered detrimental to an employment relationship. Not only will this type of conduct undermine the trust and confidence between employer and employee, there could also be damage caused to an employer’s reputation.

Social media

One way in which an employee may be seen to have caused damage to an employer’s reputation is through inappropriate statements or posts to social media, conduct which Mr O’Connell also allegedly engaged in. The increasing usage of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter means that incidents such as this are likely to become more frequent. Whilst the case law in this area is currently fairly limited, the employment tribunal has demonstrated a willingness to uphold the fairness of the dismissals for offensive, non-work-related personal posts, taking into account the potential damage caused to an employer.

Employee and employer action

The risks set out above demonstrate the increasing need for employees to be aware of the impact that their conduct outside of work may have on their employment, including their usage of social media.

Employers also have a key role to play in highlighting the risks of inappropriate conduct outside of work and should take steps to ensure that their employees know what is expected of them. The tribunal is likely to look at what knowledge an employee had about their employer’s corporate image, and the parameters of acceptable social media usage. Employers should therefore ensure that they have relevant policies in place clearly setting out the standards expected of employees outside of working hours and when using social media.