The work email minefield

We live in an ever more complicated world and the lines between our professional and private lives can easily become blurred. So what happens when an employee's conduct outside of work starts to impact upon their position within work?

By Ashna Chada, Taylors Solicitors.

Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, allegedly made sexist comments in private email exchanges with a lawyer friend, which were subsequently leaked to the Sunday Mirror newspaper. It has been suggested that Mr Scudamore could be charged under the rules of the Football Association (FA) and the Premier League’s own Anti-Discrimination Policy.

Sports Minister, Helen Grant, described the content of the emails as "unacceptable and very disappointing", while the Shadow Minister for Sport, Clive Efford, has written to the Premier League asking why no action has been taken against Scudamore and they are due to meet next week to decide whether he should face further action.

Mr Scudamore has emphasised that the emails were private but has apologised for his “error of judgement”. In his statement, Scudamore said the comments were made in "private emails exchanged between colleagues and friends of many years. They were received from and sent to my private and confidential email address, a temporary employee, who was with the organisation for only a matter of weeks, should not have accessed and was under no instruction to do so”.

But in the world of social media and email, can there be a difference between public and private?

Current UK employment law talks only of conduct, rather than conduct at work. There may be circumstances in which an employer would be entitled to challenge employees over their conduct outside the workplace if it is capable of adversely impacting the business or employment relationship in some way.

A good example of this was the well known case of Gosden –v- Lifeline (2008). Taylors’ Head of Employment, Will Clayton, advised Lifeline throughout in the case that was considered at the time to break new ground; it is still regarded as a good law, relevant to the ever-growing digital world and social media platforms.

Mr Gosden, an employee of the national charity, Lifeline Project, sent an offensive email from his home computer to that of a colleague, Mr Yates, who worked for HM Prison Service (HMPS). The email contained racist and sexist content and encouraged the recipient to pass it on to others. Mr Yates forwarded the e-mail on to the work computer of a colleague at the prison at which he worked and HMPS then became aware of the email and that it had originated from a Lifeline employee. The content of Mr Gosden’s email was entirely contrary to Lifeline’s charitable objectives and long standing commitment to equality.

Lifeline dismissed Mr Gosden for his actions as they were regarded as gross misconduct and conduct capable of bringing Lifeline into disrepute with HMPS.

The Employment Tribunal concluded that the decision to dismiss Mr Gosden was entirely fair and within the range of reasonable responses open to Lifeline. The potential damage to Lifeline's reputation could have been considerable. The Tribunal specifically found that Mr Gosden was not entitled to expect privacy in his email given, not least, that it was part of a chain email that he endorsed and contributed to by passing on to others with a request that they did the same.

The moral of this story is that people have little power or control over where their ‘private’ emails may end up. Mr Gosden may not have intended the email to end up within HMPS but that did not prevent Lifeline for holding him responsible.

Despite only being an Employment Tribunal decision, this case (and other that have followed it) provide guidance on the approach that Tribunals may take in such cases. No doubt we will see many more of these types of cases in future and it is worth reviewing your disciplinary procedures and codes, as well as equal opportunity policies, in order to consider whether any amendments are required to address these sorts of situation in your business.