Employee wrongfully disciplined for Christian Facebook comment

Adrian Smith was employed by Trafford Housing Trust as a Housing Manager and in February 2011 he posted on his Facebook wall a link to the BBC news article titled, “Gay church ‘marriages’ set to get the go-ahead” with the comment, “an equality too far.”

As a result of the Trust’s disciplinary procedure he was found guilty of gross misconduct and demoted to a non-managerial post with a 40 per cent reduction in his pay.  Mr Smith argued that these actions constituted a breach of contract and sought damages for the breach.

The first question was whether Mr Smith’s postings on Facebook amounted to a breach of either the Trust’s Code of Conduct or of their Equal Opportunities Policy. This was whether Mr Smith’s actions could be construed as “bringing the Trust into disrepute” and to what extent this covered activities outside of work. Mr Justice Briggs decided that Mr Smith’s Facebook page was used on a personal and social basis and given his other entries on the page including sport, food etc. it was reasonable to find that his comments could not be taken as a representation of the Trust’s views on this issue.

The Trust argued that Mr Smith was promoting religious views among colleagues and customers as he had 43 work colleagues as friends on Facebook. Justice Briggs said that the work colleagues had the choice of accessing Mr Smith’s wall and related content therefore there was no such promotion.

Mr Justice Briggs found that Mr Smith’s comments could not be construed as being offensive and it was decided that Mr Smith had not committed an act of misconduct.

Mr Smith’s demotion was found to be a breach of his employment contract and amounted to a wrongful dismissal. He was awarded the difference between his contractual salary and his wage during the 12 weeks following his assumption of his new reduced role which left, “the uncomfortable feeling that justice has not been done to him in the circumstances” following the “unfair way” in which he was treated.

Interestingly Human Rights issues were not directly raised by Mr Smith as to freedom of expression or freedom of belief and Mr Justice Briggs confined his analysis to contractual issues.

Even though Mr Justice Briggs found in favour of Mr Smith on this contractual interpretation, the case should be read as a warning to employees who use social media such as Facebook. Employees should be cautious with regards to their activities outside of work when they have contractual obligations.

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