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Should you be sacked for off-duty behaviour?

Clive O’Connell was sacked by his law firm for branding Liverpool fans ‘scouse scum’ – should we be accountable to employers for what we say in our free time?

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In an interview, Clive O’Connell, right, called Liverpool fans ‘scouse scum’, drawing social media wrath. Photograph: Neeks Sports/YouTube

Andrew Harrison, journalist and Liverpool supporter A lawyer and Chelsea FC fan who ranted that Liverpool supporters were “scouse scum” and “nasty, horrible people” has been fired by his employers, an international law firm.

While leaving Stamford Bridge after his team’s 3-1 drubbing by Liverpool, the florid-faced Clive O’Connell went into full boo-hoo-it’s-not-fair mode before the cameras of a YouTube channel called Neek Sports. This entertaining tantrum went viral, other infractions emerged from O’Connell’s blogs and tweets – the city of Liverpool was “inbred”, its homes “horrible” – and eventually his bosses at Goldberg Segalla responded in the required fashion. So a blowhard posho gets his comeuppance, social media wins again, and all’s well with the world. Or is it?

I’m not so sure. I was born in Liverpool and I’ve followed the team since I was a kid. O’Connell appears to be exactly the kind of insufferable fool who makes football hard to watch. But I don’t think he should lose his job for losing his rag. Our employers do not own our opinions, however stupid they may be. And we are not always on duty, human brand extensions of whoever pays our wages. Or do we want to live in a world where everyone is constantly self-censoring like a shifty politician? Sometimes free speech means the freedom to act like a world-class idiot, doesn’t it?

John Hyde, deputy news editor, Law Society Gazette Of course, he was unlucky. The camera crew might have walked past him. Chelsea might have held on to their early lead (unlikely on present form, granted) and left O’Connell in a cheerier mood. The clip may not have been picked up and gone viral. O’Connell was perfectly free to share his opinions with friends at the pub, or to call Liverpudlians every insult going within his own home. If these moments had been covertly filmed and shared, he would have every right to complain.

Watch Clive O’Connell’s comments on Neeks Sports.

The rules about brand extension have changed. Once you commit an opinion to camera or keyboard you place your reputation – and by extension your employer’s reputation – on the line. The lines between being on and off duty are blurred.

You would never attend a conference wearing a name badge with your firm’s name and broadcast offensive opinions to the room through a loudspeaker. In effect, that’s what O’Connell was doing – just on a greater and more damaging scale. You might not reflect your employer’s views, but any offensive opinions you share will inevitably be reflected back on them.

AH You’re right, the lines between on and off duty are becoming blurred – but only in favour of the presumption that we’re always on duty wherever we are. When did we make that decision? Like most bad ideas, it just popped into existence while we weren’t paying attention. There was no debate about the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, and that creates cases like this. We are now in danger of holding private individuals to the same unreal standards that even politicians can’t live up to. “Gaffe” begets social media furore, begets a demand for someone – anyone – to be sacked, and then the cycle begins again.

Of course O’Connell was incredibly daft to mouth off in front of a random camera. But let’s talk about the two things that really got him fired: social media’s hunger for a victim, and the one-strike-and-you’re-out policy produced by that hunger. Summary dismissal should be reserved for gross misconduct, embezzlement and – outside of office hours – serious crime. In a case like this, surely it’s enough to conduct a frosty interview and then let the man marinade in the hot shame of being today’s national laughing stock?

JH I agree, it feels instinctively unfair to ditch a partner who was widely acclaimed as one of the best in his field purely on the basis of one mistake. But today’s mistakes are no longer tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. Twenty years ago it would have been dealt with by a ticking off and a host of jokes at the Christmas party. Mistakes today are forever encased in search engines, returning to rear their ugly head with every click from a potential client.

Damaging the reputation of your employer is as serious a crime as you can commit. What if the best young law graduate of 2016 happens to come from Liverpool? Will they be less likely to join a firm that – while not endorsing them – seems not to regard these views as a serious issue? Probably. Will clients from across the globe baulk at instructing people who seem unable to control their emotions? Almost certainly.

The social media lynch mob are unsightly but undoubtedly powerful. Once they have pointed their forks at your brand, the only option is to remove the catalyst and hope for the best.

AH Perhaps our talented Liverpudlian law graduate would be more impressed by an employer who dealt with an infringer fairly – send him on a course, have him do some pro bono work with a Liverpool football charity, make him hug John Bishop on YouTube – than one that fired him outright for the sake of its own reputation. The soul of fair punishment is rehabilitation, not pleasing the crowd.

But if it’s no longer possible to sincerely repent a serious mistake and then move on, chastened but not destroyed, then we’re heading into a dangerous place for everyone. Even if you discount the rich tapestry of hate speech that probably should get you fired, social media generates a million sackable offences every day. Do we really want to hand unscrupulous employers a catch-all reason to dispense with troublesome staff? Human beings are flawed. Yet the world of work, with all its platitudes about “values”, tries to mould us into superhuman figures who never get anything wrong. In his YouTube statement announcing O’Connell’s dismissal, Goldberg Segalla managing partner Rick Cohen said that his recruits must be “better human beings than they are lawyers”. Really? Must we all be better human beings than we are optometrists, binmen, teachers, plasterers? Sometimes you just want the job done well.

JH This is ultimately a debate between what should happen and what has to happen. In theory, O’Connell should pay a trip to Liverpool and grovel, Boris Johnson-style, for forgiveness. But unlike with Johnson, the media would not be interested in a (previously anonymous) lawyer’s plea for forgiveness. The circus has moved on and awaits its next headline act. The bottom line is: this was going to do serious harm to the firm and ultimately that meant he had to go.

No company could expect to mould every employee into the perfect individual, although I would argue that as a service industry, law firm partners should aim to be better human beings than lawyers, first and foremost. But every employer can – and should insist on – aggression or offence being kept away from camera and off social media. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.

​These views are John Hyde’s and do not reflect those of The Law Society

 

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2015 by and tagged , .

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