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Pub manager fairly dismissed for Facebook comments made whilst at work

3rd May, 2011

A pub manager was fairly dismissed by her employer for gross misconduct after making inappropriate comments on Facebook while at work about two customers who had verbally abused and threatened her. The Employment Tribunal found in the case of Preece v JD Wetherspoons plc ET/2104806/10 that the manager was found to be in breach of the employer’s e-mail and internet policy, which specifically referred to employees’ use of media such as Facebook while at work.

Miss Preece initially commenced employment with JD Wetherspoons plc (“Wetherspoons”) in May 2007 and worked as a manager at the Ferry Boat Pub from May 2009 until June 2010. On 24 May 2010, Miss Preece was subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse and physical threats from two customers in the pub and consequently asked the customers to leave. Shortly after, Miss Preece received several abusive phone calls, believed to have been made by the customers’ daughter. Following the phone calls, while Miss Preece was still on duty, she made several posts on her Facebook account about the earlier incident and made a number of negative comments about the customers.

Wetherspoons was subsequently contacted by the customers’ daughter who complained that offensive comments about her mother had been made “very public”. Miss Preece was invited to an investigatory meeting at which she admitted that she had made some comments on Facebook while she was supposed to be working. She said that she understood that her actions “brought her into conflict” with Wetherspoons’ E-mail, Internet and Intranet policy (“the Policy”) but explained that she thought that her privacy settings meant that only work and school friends could see her communications on Facebook.

Miss Preece was invited to a disciplinary hearing and was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct. Wetherspoons upheld the allegation that Miss Preece had breached the Policy and that her conduct had lowered the reputation of Wetherspoons and resulted in a fundamental breakdown of trust and confidence between her and the Company. Miss Preece appealed internally against the decision but was unsuccessful and so she brought a claim for unfair dismissal.

The Employment Tribunal dismissed Miss Preece’s claim, finding that Wetherspoons had correctly investigated the matter and that the sanction of dismissal fell within the range of reasonable responses available to a reasonable employer. The Tribunal went on to find that, despite Miss Preece’s belief about the privacy of her communications, her activities were in the public domain. While she had a right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the action taken by Wetherspoons was justified in view of the risk of damage to its reputation. It was deemed clear from the Facebook entries, when read as a whole, that Miss Preece and her friends were discussing work and specific customers.

This case highlights the importance for employers of having a properly drafted and up-to-date policy regarding the use of social media. Given the pace of development of social media trends, it is vital that existing policies are reviewed regularly in order to ensure that they are relevant and applicable to situations such as in this case which may arise.

If you do not have a current policy in relation to social media or would like your existing policies reviewing, please contact Helen Watson on 01244 405565 or e-mail her here.

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