Case study: Sending the wrong message

...the employee sent an offensive email to a work colleague from his home computer outside working hours but the alarm was raised when the email entered the company's system...

BACKGROUND: Mr G is employed by a charity, LP, that works with drug users in prison. One of LP’s largest clients is HM Prison Service (HMPS) and Mr G works in a prison in the north of England. The prison is unhappy with Mr G’s conduct and issues him with a written warning over his attendance. As a result, Mr G is transferred to work at another prison nearby.

Mr G sends his former colleague Mr Y an offensive and racist email. The email is sent from Mr G’s home computer and outside his working hours. At the end of the offensive email, a message reads: ‘It is your duty to pass this on’.

Mr Y forwards the email to a colleague, at which point the email automatically enters the HMPS computer system and is red-flagged due to the offensive content.

OUTCOME: HMPS launches an investigation into the matter and discovers the email was originally sent by Mr G. As a result, he is excluded from working at any of their prisons within the north of England area. Consequently, LP suspend Mr G while they launch their own investigation into the matter. Mr G is eventually dismissed for gross misconduct following a disciplinary hearing.

Mr G takes LP to an employment tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal. He argues that he did not personally misuse the HMPS IT system and that Mr Y’s actions are not his responsibility.

Mr G does not raise the fact that the email was sent from his own computer, but the tribunal considers this aspect in terms of privacy. It considers that if Mr G had sent the email to Mr Y, solely for his own use, then it may have found there was an issue regarding privacy. However, on the basis that the email has the closing sentence ‘It is your duty to pass this on’ then it couldn’t be considered confidential communication.

The tribunal does not accept Mr G’s position and decides that LP’s actions were reasonable in the circumstances.