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Guard’s Unguarded Royal Comment

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It was reported this week that a Scots Guard who was due to be on duty during the wedding of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton has been suspended from duty as a result of comments he made on Facebook, which referred to Ms Middleton as a “stuck up cow”.

Buckingham PalaceThe guard has been suspended and will perhaps face disciplinary proceedings leading to his dismissal - if the recent decision of an Employment Tribunal in another case is taken into account.

In the case of Preece v JD Wetherspoons Plc, the Employment Tribunal held that a pub manager was fairly dismissed for gross misconduct after she made inappropriate comments on Facebook about two of her customers who had verbally abused and threatened her.

The Tribunal ruled that her employer was entitled to take the view that the conversation on Facebook, which took place whilst she was at work, did not reflect her upset or anger at the customers, but seemed more like a joke between friends.

It did not matter that she thought that her privacy settings meant that only close friends could see her entries. In fact, a wider audience was able to view her page, including relatives of the customers in question. The manager was found to be in breach of the company’s e-mail and internet policy, which specifically referred to employees’ use of media such as Facebook whilst at work.

The Tribunal went on to rule that whatever Ms Preece’s belief about the privacy of her communications, her activities were in the public domain. Whilst she may have a right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the action taken by Wetherspoons was justified in view of the risk of damage to its reputation.

Paul Grindley, Head of the Employment team at Yorkshire Law firm Keeble Hawson LLP comments:
“This case highlights the importance for employers, and usefulness, of having a properly drafted policy regarding the use of social media. On the other hand, the lesson for employees is not to use Facebook or similar media as a way of venting frustration about work.”

“High profile cases such as the episode involving the guard are almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg of cases where employees land in hot water following ill advised comments broadcast to all and sundry on social networking sites.”

“The fact that Ms Preece was using Facebook whilst on duty was clearly relevant in this case although that is not to say that had she participated in a similar conversation out of work that her employer would not have taken it as seriously.”

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