Rugby Australia has sacked Australian rugby star Israel Folau because of what he said in a posting on Facebook. He wrote the following on his church’s Facebook page despite being warned not to do so.:
“Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, athiests and idolators – Hell awaits you”.
We’ve posted on this very recently, so we are confident about how a UK employment tribunal would handle this.
The Equality Act bans discriminating on the basis of religious belief or sexual orientation. It could therefore lead to disciplinary action and/or dismissal. But what happens if an employee expresses their religious view which happens to offend colleagues? Is it fair to dismiss an employee for such conduct? Is the employee expressing their religious view or, discriminating against colleagues of a particular sexual orientation? Does it matter if the offended person is gay?
To prove unfair dismissal, an employee must show that the decision to dismiss fell outside one of the ‘fair reasons’ of dismissal. And they must show it was unreasonable.
For direct discrimination, an employee must show that the employer treated them less favourably than someone without the same ‘religion or belief’ or ‘sexual orientation’. The employee must then show that the treatment was because of their belief.
This article discusses how UK law would deal with this issue.
Mr Folau is a devout Christian. Rugby Australia recently terminated his contract for the facebook posting, saying that he:
“had committed a high-level breach of the Professional Players Code of Conduct warranting termination of his employment contract”.
Mr Folau said in the immediate aftermath “I share it with love. I can see the other side of the coin where people’s reactions are the total opposite to how I’m sharing it”.
Mr Folau has now lodged a claim to the Australian Industrial Tribunal (the equivalent to the UK Employment Tribunal) alleging his contract was essentially unlawfully terminated. He says “No Australian of any faith should be fired for practising their religion”.
How do UK employers deal with an employee’s use of social media
Social media has grown enormously over the last 10 years, to the extent that all employers can presume all their employees have a social media presence of some sort. Not all of them are as famous as Mr Folau of course.
Employers often have a social media policy. This aims to minimise the adverse impact of social media on businesses (i.e. bad publicity, revealing trade secrets or other confidential information). Guidelines typically include:
- Avoiding social media communications that could damage reputation or business interests;
- A ban on using social media to disparage the business, its staff or contacts;
- A ban on sensitive business information (i.e. business performance), jeopardising trade secrets, confidential information and intellectual property; and
- Being respectful to others.
Breaching social media policies is generally regarded as misconduct. Depending on the circumstances they can result in formal disciplinary action including dismissal. Having a policy in place makes it harder for an employee to bring a successful employment tribunal claim.
How would Mr Folau’s case be dealt with by a UK employer and through the courts?
Assuming that the employer had a social media policy with the typical guidelines stated above, in our opinion, a tribunal would find the post disrespectful to other players/staff. It would bring the profession into disrepute. It would also have resulted in a victory for the employer in an unfair dismissal claim.
On one hand, employers must uphold discrimination laws, which the anti-homosexual views of the Old Testament are at odds with. On the other, people generally have a right to freedom of thought and expression, especially outside work. But employers have a right not to be associated with such views, which could bring the company into disrepute. And no, it does not matter if the posting offended no gay person.
We think that an employer would be justified in dismissing someone for such a Facebook posting made on a private account, certainly if the employee was well-known or linked online with the employer. This is because it could bring the employer into disrepute. But it depends on the context. If it were a blue-collar type situation (as opposed to a client-facing role) then it would be hard for the employer to say that its reputation could be damaged. This is because the general public would not be able to tie the Facebook posting to the employer.
This case is interesting because there is a conflict between the protected characteristics of ‘religion or belief’ and ‘sexual orientation’. On one hand Mr Folau’s posting on Facebook was expressing his religious belief but on the other it was offensive to colleagues with modern and secular views on homosexuality. Mr Folau says that he was simply quoting from the Bible. But this does not make it right in the eyes of employment law.
Punishing someone for a Facebook posting is not the same as punishing someone for expressing their religious views in the way it would be to punish them for attending a Church that espouses bigoted views.
Nevertheless, employers should be wary of dismissing an employee with a link to their religious beliefs, as this carries a risk of a discrimination claim. It goes a long way to have considered this in advance in the social media policy or disciplinary policy.
It will be interesting to see how the Australian courts handle this case.
Hatton James Legal
Image used under CC courtesy of Robin Bye