Is Buddy the Elf a good employee?

 It’s nearly here! Christmas is just five days away! The radio stations are playing Last Christmas by Wham on loop, supermarkets are clogging up the TV with advertisements for gooey desserts and it’s getting easier and easier to spot those remaining advert calendar squares!

Every family tends to have an annual pre-Christmas tradition and I’m no different. In fact, mine is to visit my younger family members each year and watch Elf with them. For those not in the know, Elf is a Christmas film which came out in 2003 and stars Will Ferrell as a human who is adopted by Santa’s elves and raised as a Christmas Elf at the North Pole. It sounds terrible but, in fact, it’s a cult classic that was named Best Christmas film in a recent survey!

Anyway, what better time of the year to explore whether or not Buddy the Elf is a good employee or not? I mean, it is an employment law-related and Christmas-themed topic, so what are we waiting for? Let’s travel through the Candy Cane forest and explore this further!

So, to give us some background, Buddy was a baby at an orphanage who snuck into Santa’s sack one night. When Santa discovers him at the bottom of his sack upon his return to the North Pole, an elf adopts him and raises Buddy as his own. Unfortunately, Buddy grows at three times the rate (and height) of the elves and, eventually, discovers that he is a human, not a Christmas Elf. Aside from his height, this is especially noticeable when Buddy can ‘only’ make 85 Etch-A-Sketches a day rather than his 1,000 daily target in Santa’s workshop. Upon discovering that he is human, Buddy goes to New York to find his real father and save him from the naughty list, as well as looking for a more normal life.

During the film, Buddy has work experience at his real father’s book company, work experience in a mail room and works as an employee of a large department store in the Christmas section. Buddy is dedicated and keen but, overall, was he a good employee (by UK employment law standards)?

Not so silent night – Christmas parties gone wrong!

Ahhh the office Christmas party. The supposed annual nightmare for the HR Team. Of all the traditional Christmas-related workplace events, the Christmas party sure is the one that surrounded by the most myths.

HR Departments sending out pre-Christmas party checklists? Alcohol being banned? The party itself replaced with a simple lunch or, even more severely, not held at all to avoid legal claims or grievances? I mean, just type ‘office Christmas party’ into an online search engine and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

In recent years, perhaps not unsurprisingly, some employers have simply stopped having Christmas parties to avoid the hassle and stress of dealing with the ‘troubles’ that emerge. You’d think that, as an Employment Law Solicitor, I’d see that as a good thing? Absolutely not! So, why is that?

The Santa Clause: Employment Law issues in Lapland

Penguin Santa You know who’s having a low media presence this year? Santa Claus! I mean, just look at the Christmas adverts this year! Without naming names, the ‘biggest’ Christmas adverts this year involve a monster, a carrot and a toy factory. The only ‘big’ advert that sees the big, red man is one in which Paddington bear mistakes a burglar for Santa!

So, why the low media presence? Where is Santa?

On that front, I may be able to help. You see, Mr Claus is currently having some Employment Law and HR issues with his workforce and has been busy obtaining legal advice on what to do next. It’s a stressful time of year, particularly with less and less people believing in him (there seems to be a rumour going around that he isn’t real) and certain big rival companies in the logistics business setting up in competition (the main one named after a geographical location considerably far away from Lapland).

Put simply, Christmas needs saving and Santa can’t operate without solving his current employment law issues. With this in mind, let’s go on a Christmas journey and help Santa save Christmas!

Can an employee be disciplined for looking for another job?

Job Application Form You’d think this would be a weird question but I actually get asked this question on a fairly regular basis. Thankfully, I mostly get asked it by employees rather than employers but, in saying that, I can recall two employers (at a past law firm) that asked me this exact question.

The answer? Quite simply: it depends. It depends on the circumstances but, theoretically, yes, an employee can be disciplined for job hunting. In practice, however, it would be a rare occasion where an employer could safely do so.

To explore the dividing line, let’s look at three examples.

When can social media posts be used as evidence? – A Snoopy character study

Charlie BrownSocial media. Oh my. We all know the usual story of an employee getting ‘caught out’ by a social media post. But, in reality, social media is a complicated beast and never quite as straightforward as it appears. Can an employer normally rely on social media posts? Probably. Can it always rely on incriminating social media posts? No!

Before we get into it fully, it’s important to consider that even defining ‘social media’ is tricky nowadays. Raise your hands if you think you’re pretty au faux with social media websites? Good, good. So you’ve heard of all of the following: Facebook, WhatsApp, Tumblr, LINE, Telegram, Foursquare and Snapfish. I thought not… (Bonus point if you actually did!)

Now, we all know the standard tale. An employee posts something anti-employer on their social media or posts something that proves dishonest conduct and the employer then pulls out their social media policy, invites the employee to a Disciplinary hearing and a formal sanction (up to and including dismissal) is given. But, in reality, a lot depends on how that information comes to light.

Can employees tracking Transfer Deadline Day today be given the red card?

Today is Transfer Deadline Day. For non-football fans, that phrase will either illicit groans or simple ignorance. However, for football fans, that phrase conjures up images of Harry Redknapp being interviewed leaning out of a car window, Peter Odemwingie turning up to random football stadiums without consent and Liverpool offloading Fernando Torres for £50m and instantly replacing him with Andy Carroll!

As the name suggests, Transfer Deadline Day is the final day on which Football League clubs can buy and sell players (albeit Spain’s transfer window remains open until Friday night – which will be nervewracking for Coutinho fans!) Unfortunately, due to the date being fixed as 31st August each year, it tends to fall on a weekday. Many employers, therefore, will be spotting employees quickly closing down internet pages packed with rumours about where Mahrez is off to and whether Coutinho will finally be sold for goodness knows how much…

But what stance should an employer take? To use a referee analogy: should you let it go, have a quiet word or produce a yellow or red card?

Why dismissal for minor, non-malicious social media posts can constitute unfair dismissal

Employment Law cases can relate to all manner of things: sexist make-up policies, discriminatory Secret Santa gifts and, in the case of one Canadian law suit, a claim by employees for ‘psychological torture’ due to the employer playing Christmas songs on loop from November onwards.

I’ve recently read a case worthy of joining this list – namely, the ‘Facebook meat advertisement’ case. This is the case of Hayward v Noel Chadwick Limited heard in Liverpool Employment Tribunal, which published its judgment in March 2017.

As some readers in the Wigan area may know, Noel Chadwick Limited (“NCL”) is a typical local butcher shop which heavily relies on local reputation and footfall in the Standish area. The only real ‘online service’ provided is an email service requesting local deliveries.

In this case, Mr Hayward sent a public Facebook message to his then-girlfriend about the cost of packages of meat from an online meat company. The company wasn’t a competitor and operated in a different manner (i.e. online-only and a wholly different types of product). Put plainly, the only similarity was that they sold meat (in the same way that Dacia and Ferrari are similar because they sell cars, for example – it is the same product but very different ends of the market wihtout being ‘true’ competitors competing for the same customers).

Unfortunately, the Directors of NCL considered the post to be an “advertisement”. They also argued that they thought the post was made in bad faith and was “malicious”. So what did the Employment Tribunal decide?

Defensive action against keyboard warriors: when social media use becomes a disciplinary issue!

Everyone who knows me seems to associate me with employment law blogs. An example?  I went to one of my best friend’s wedding last weekend and, whilst at the meal following the wedding I caught up with the sister of my best friend.  We hadn’t seen each other in years and, naturally, I asked how she was. She said she was good and, after a brief chat, turned the conversation round and said ‘me and my husband follow your blogs, they’re very good’ and called her husband over. Instantly, the husband came over, we caught up and proceeded to spend 20 minutes chatting about employment law issues in the workplace, many of which were subjects of past blogs.

And therein lies the power of social media, even with a couple I’ve only managed to see on two occasions since their wedding in 2009, they had read my blogs and knew where I was up to career- and life-wise solely due to my social media.

The obvious problem that comes with social media is reach.  As I’ve just mentioned, it can reach people you don’t get the chance to directly contact but, at the same time, it can mean that comments meant for just a few can reach more people than realised.  And, unfortunately, it is common for employees to get into hot water by posting negative comments that come to the attention of their manager.

Now, obviously, simply posting content online concerning your work or about your employer isn’t a sackable offence.  As a writer of numerous blogs for Canter Levin & Berg, I’m very glad of that!  However, in saying this, negative comments and/or posting confidential information are exceptions to this rule, mainly because they can be shown to cause damage to the reputation of the employer (without which, the dismissal is likely to be legally unfair).

So, let’s look at two examples of social media posts that may concern employers using some entirely fictitious individuals…

PC dismissed after being spotted on TV at Royal Ascot when off sick

PC Jonathan Adams is, like me, a fan of horse racing. However, his enthusiasm for the sport caught up with him when he faked illness to watch horses in which he had an interest.

PC Adams was praised for his community policing work in Gloucester city centre and was described by a retired chief inspector as being “one of the most honest police officers I have ever come across”.

On 30 September 2015 he was off work, having called in to say that he was suffering from diarrhoea. However, this coincided with the running of Little Lady Katie at Nottingham, a then three year old filly trained by Karl Burke in which he had a 2.5% share. The horse was third of eleven at odds of 16/1. In the subsequent investigation his attendance at the racecourse was revealed by a number plate check.

He was at Nottingham races again on 6 April 2016, this time watching the same horse come seventh of twelve at odds of 8/1 and having called in sick with a migraine.

He subsequently requested the week off for Royal Ascot and was refused. Undeterred, he told Gloucestershire Constabulary that he had to take 17 June off because he was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Somewhat unwisely, particularly bearing in mind his occupation, he was spotted later that day on Channel 4 Racing, leaping about with joy (pictured: credit Channel 4 Television), when another Karl Burke horse in the same syndicate ownership (but in which he didn’t have a stake), Quiet Reflection, won the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup, having gone off at at odds of 7/4 favourite and beating, among others, the Aidan O’Brien trained Washington DC.

At a disciplinary hearing held over two days in July 2017 PC Adams said that he had decided that it would do him more good to go to the races than stay at home because racecourses were his “happy place” where he could alleviate his symptoms of crippling stomach ache and stabbing pains or migraines. In that case he must have acted quickly, notwithstanding his ailment, when arranging to attend the Royal Enclosure at Ascot suitably attired and bearing in mind that he lives in Ross-on-Wye.

EAT Judgment: There can be no disability-related harassment claim without first establishing the disability

In the recent case of Peninsula Business Service Ltd v Baker, the Claimant had advised his manager that he had dyslexia and had also provided a psychologist’s report confirming the diagnosis.

The Employer’s occupational health provider prepared a report confirming that the Claimant was likely to be considered disabled and recommended reasonable adjustments, however the Claimant’s supervisor had reservations about this and thought that the Claimant could have engineered the report in his favour.

The Employer subsequently arranged for a private company to carry out covert surveillance of the Claimant, the reason for this being that they suspected that he was carrying out work for a second Employer. The surveillance report did not substantiate the Employer’s suspicions, however it did show that the Claimant was not devoting all of his time to his work. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced and a copy of the surveillance report was sent to the Claimant during these proceedings, despite not showing that he was engaged in any fraudulent conduct.

The Claimant brought claims at the Employment Tribunal, claiming that the surveillance was harassment (unwanted conduct relating to his disability) and also victimisation as the disclosures he had made about his disability were ‘protected acts’.

The Tribunal found that the surveillance could not be deemed to be harassment as the Claimant did not know about it at the time, however later telling him about it for disciplinary purposes was harassment. Furthermore the Claimant’s reliance on his asserted disability was the reason for the surveillance, so the conduct did relate to his disability. The Employer arranging the surveillance was also victimisation – as the Claimant’s performance appraisals had always been positive the surveillance could only have been triggered by suspicions about his disability.

The EAT allowed the appeal.