Case law updates

“Offensive” tweeter unfairly dismissed after investigation failures

A civil servant who was dismissed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after he posted “racist and political” tweets from a personal social media account was unfairly dismissed, an Employment tribunal has found.

Ayub Patel (AP) was employed at the DWP between 18 December 1991 and 1 December 2017. According to the organisation’s behavioural policy, civil servants must not signal any political affiliation, and must “avoid making any kind of personal attack or tasteless or offensive remarks to individuals or groups” in person or on social media accounts.  They are obliged to review the behavioural policy on an annual basis, and are warned that failing to comply can have serious consequences, including dismissal. 

In late 2017, the DWP investigated an anonymous complaint that AP had breached the standards of the social media policy in tweets from his personal Twitter account which included messages referencing far-right extremist Tommy Robinson; US president Donald Trump; and “white male Christian” gun owners.

At an investigation interview AP accepted that some of the comments were offensive, but said that during a previous security presentation a trainer had indicated that if nothing on a personal Twitter account associated the owner with the DWP, it did not matter what was tweeted. He expressed regret for his actions, and said that if he had realised he was in breach of company standards he would not have behaved the same way. 

However the disciplinary hearing but did not review every offending tweet with AP, or give him the opportunity to comment on each of the tweets that were used when reaching the decision to dismiss.  It also failed to investigate further into what had been said regarding social media during the training sessions AP had attended, or seeking to find out where the original complaint about his conduct had come from. His appeal was also turned down.

The tribunal found that the failure to properly investigate every aspect of the case, that no clear reason for the decision to dismiss Patel for gross misconduct had been given, that whether AP had deliberately breached the behavioural policy had not been established, and that he had expressed contrition, meant that the dismissal had been unfair. However given his offensive remarks on social media, he was charged a contributory fault of 50 per cent.