In the face of recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, it is important for employers to get to grips with how these events (as well as like future events) could trickle their way into workplace discussions. Employers should be aware of the problems said workplace discussions could present them with, employees’ rights to freely express their views in the workplace/on social media, and best practice to managing a working environment where employees are not potentially putting the company into disrepute or risking harassment towards other workers, who may disagree with those views (while being mindful of an employer’s duty to support its staff).
Why might employers need to worry
Employers will no doubt already be aware of the current conflict in Israel and Gaza; it has caused widespread concern. Understandably and for many, the current conflict and circumstances surrounding the conflict are deeply sensitive issues. It may have prompted/prompt emotive responses from employees or workers, either in the workplace or on personal social media platforms.
This could cause issues for employers where/if workers express their views on the conflict in a way which could be considered inflammatory, those views are defamatory or presented in a way which sit at kilter with the company’s ethos, and the worker’s social media post(s) or workplace statement becomes ‘viral’ or trends on social media. Posts via social media can be more flippant and less thought out in terms of wording than when views are expressed in-person. Social media conversations tend to be more charged, particularly when concerning politics, and language or words used on social media may be more polarising than language used when discussing the same topic in-person.
If social media posts reach large audiences and the individual making the post is or can be linked to the company (via LinkedIn, say) the worker’s views may be read by the public as constituting employer views and could bring the company into disrepute. It may also foster greater perceived pressure for employers to address the conflict themselves, via a public statement, which may cause wider upset amongst the workforce (either through the statement being too neutral or too tilted to either side which, in itself, can lead a company open to allegations of discrimination). In respect of ‘viral’ inflammatory or defamatory social media posts by workers/employees, there might also then be corporate pressure on the employer to hold the posting employee accountable and to be seen (publicly) as having reprimanded the employee – depending on the nature of the post/statement and how inflammatory the views expressed are.
It is easy for employers to then feel compelled to make rash decisions to satisfy public demand, such as disciplining or dismissing workers/employees, which could give rise to a host of employment law related issues. Employers should ensure any such processes are managed confidentially and fairly.
It is worth noting that there will be many employees or workers who express their views on social media in a manner which does not present employers with the above issues.
There have, however, been rafts of news stories worldwide describing employees having been suspended or dismissed for having shared their views on the conflict publicly. In the UK, the most notable is a Transport for London tube driver who was suspended after allegedly being recorded chanting whilst operating a tube service.
Do workers have free reign to express political views at work?
No. Employees and workers in the UK do have rights to express their political views at work, though this right is subject to limitations.
All UK citizens have the right to freedom of expression, regardless of employment status. This right is not unlimited and can be restricted where necessary. Freedom of expression is enshrined by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which provides that the “right to… receive and impart information and ideas” is to be “without interference by public authority”. The exercise of freedom of expression, however, is limited to restrictions or formalities as prescribed by law and necessary “in a democratic society”.
Article 9 of the same convention gives individuals the right to free thought, conscience, and religion – including the right to manifest such thought or religion (by posting about it on social media or discussing it at work, say). This, too, is subject to the same restrictions as above.
The rights conferred by Articles 9 and 10 do not encompass thoughts or expressions of views which are aimed at the destruction of the rights/freedoms of other individuals/groups (Article 17, European Convention of Human Rights). This means views which are generally accepted as being abhorrent or promoting hatred to the strongest degree are unlikely to be protected. Case law has indicated that views which are or can be considered as offensive by some, such as fox hunting or opposing critical race theory, may still be protected by Articles 9 and 10.
Employers do, however, have control over whether the expression of certain information at work is lawful and therefore permitted. Workplace policies may prohibit the discussion of certain topics or the expression of views in certain ways, if such a restriction is lawful, necessary and conducive to the protection of the rights of others in the workplace.
All laws in the United Kingdom must be construed in line with the convention rights.
What about views expressed outside of work?
Views expressed outside of work, and on personal social media platforms for example, would ordinarily not be of concern to employers. In the current day and age, however, and as above – these may need to be addressed with employees where views shared privately become public (perhaps because a social media post has trended and the worker or employee can be linked to the company) as, subject to those views and the wording of any post, it could pose a risk to the employer’s reputation. Views expressed on personal platforms could also be said to harass other employees or workers able to see those views, if those employees or workers disagree with the views expressed and subject to the wording of any post. Employers should carefully consider its policies and training on anti-harassment, anti-bullying, equality and diversity.
How to manage and support staff
Employers should take stock of the size of the organisation, the nature of the business, and the views of its employees generally. Is there a need for a workplace policy to set out acceptable forms of behaviour in and outside of work? Have like issues cropped up before? Does any workplace policy need to be worded carefully to not overstep boundaries in respect of employee/worker convention rights?
Employers should also consider whether there are clear lines drawn in respect of employee/worker social media usage, particularly where employee/workers have work-related social media accounts. Is there a need for a social media policy to set out standards expected in respect of personal social media use? Will there be a different standard of use expected where other employees follow that account? Should workers state that any views on social media are their personal views and not that of their organisation?
If the workforce is larger, would it be worth training staff members on acceptable social media use and why it is important to adhere to any workplace standard? If the workforce is smaller, would it be appropriate for line managers (trained) to have informal consultations with teams/individual employees who may be affected/at the first sign of an inter-employee disagreement? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have helpfully set out several recommendations which organisations may choose to enforce to this end, and subject to the size of the workforce (Supporting your workforce during the conflict in Israel and Gaza | CIPD).
Do any relevant policies and procedures also provide that serious breaches in terms of social media usage can lead to disciplinary action, so that staff are aware?
On a personal and mental health level, are employees and workers being offered support? World events can cause distress for many, and employers should ensure that workforces are offered appropriate support where needed. Employers should be clear on their obligations in terms of the reasonable health and safety of its employees and workers.
If you are an employer looking to navigate a situation set out above or need advice on how to deal with a situation regarding an employee/worker’s use of social media, do not hesitate to contact our specialist employment team for swift commercial advice.