12 October 2020 #Employment
A teacher who brought discrimination and harassment claims against her ex-employer has had her case rejected by the Bristol Employment Tribunal. Kristie Higgs, a Christian who worked at Farmor’s School as a pastoral administrator and work experience manager, argued that the school had dismissed her because of her religious beliefs.
Ms Higgs had shared two Facebook posts, using her private Facebook account, which expressed her concerns over teaching primary school children about LGBTQ+ relationships. An anonymous complaint was subsequently made to the headteacher of the school about Ms Higgs’ Facebook posts. The complainant described the posts as “homophobic and prejudiced against the LGBT community”. Ms Higgs was suspended, pending an investigation by the school into her conduct, and subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct.
Ms Higgs argued that her treatment by the school amounted to a breach of her freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The judge however, decided that Ms Higg’s treatment was not because of her Christian beliefs. Rather, the judge commented: “the act of which we concluded Mrs Higgs was accused and eventually found guilty was posting items on Facebook that might reasonably lead people who read her posts to conclude that she was homophobic and transphobic. That behaviour, the school felt, had the potential for a negative impact in relation to various groups of people, namely pupils, parents, staff and the wider community.”
The school commented that its actions were not in response to Ms Higg’s religious beliefs but to “the particular language used on social media, which was not reflective of our ethos as a school.”
This case should act as a cautionary tale to both employers and employees. Employees need to be aware of the implications actions they take outside of work can have on their employment. Despite Ms Higgs posting on a private Facebook account and using her maiden name, measures such as these may not suffice where there is a clear connection between posts made, social media contacts and the employee’s work.
Employers also have a responsibility to ensure they clearly communicate to employees what will and won’t be tolerated. A good starting point is to have a social media policy in place which clearly stipulates that employees could face disciplinary proceedings for social media content that impacts on their reputation or the reputation of the company. It should also set out what sorts of actions are likely to result in disciplinary action and particularly, which are likely to constitute gross misconduct.
Should your organisation need assistance with drafting a social media policy or help with navigating disciplinary procedures, please get in contact with our employment law team who would be happy to help.