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Silence Is Golden

Whatever has happened to the convention that we should not speak ill of the dead? If not to respect the memory of the deceased, at least as a courtesy to the bereaved family? But good manners and self-restraint seems to have gone the way of the dodo. Since the death of Margaret Thatcher last week, the media has been boiling with comments about her life and about one-third of the first 25,000 comments posted online after her death were negative.

When she was in office I hated her policies, but I do feel revulsion for some of the behaviour following her death, much of it by people who weren’t even alive when she was Prime Minister. As well as "death parties", an online anti-Thatcher campaign has driven sales of the Wizard of Oz song Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead to number four in the official chart. How naff and unpleasant is that?

On 8th April an Oddbins employee was suspended for celebratory Thatcher death tweet (the company apologised) and at the end of last week the news broke that there was an additional casualty of Baroness Thatcher’s death, though his passing from public service may be a relief to some. It is alleged that Sergeant Jeremy Scott, now a former Metropolitan Police officer, wrote on Twitter that he hoped Lady Thatcher's death was "painful and degrading". Under the Twitter handle @thinbluespeck, which has since been taken down, Scott said Baroness Thatcher's death was "87 years too late" and added that the world was a "better place". He had also greeted "death parties" held after she died with the tweet: "Marvellous stuff!” Rather ironic really, since the Police were the one emergency service to have money poured into it during Mrs Thatcher’s regime.

Sergeant Scott was about to be suspended pending discipline proceedings but resigned. By doing so, he will keep his police pension. Scotland Yard confirmed he had submitted his resignation and it was accepted with immediate effect.

I wonder if Scott would try to rely on freedom of speech (the political right to communicate one's opinions and ideas) or freedom of expression (the act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used) to justify his tweets. In reality, there is no absolute right to freedom of speech in the UK and the right that exists is subject to legal restrictions, for example, the law relating to defamation and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

Social media has its advantages undoubtedly, but its ability to allow millions of half-baked, often ill-informed and knee-jerk reactions to circulate on a worldwide basis within minutes of any major news event is depressing. While you cannot defame the dead, the action of Scott and other like him leaves an unpleasant taste and is embarrassing for the employer. How so you limit the risk of an employee behaving as Scott did?

Set your standards, have a clear social media policy and communicate it. Do some social media training which incorporates your expectations and the consequences of breach. Monitor activity. It can be helpful to do so using a third-party to ensure propriety, compliance and objectivity. If there’s a problem, investigate it to establish the facts. If the offending comment is discriminatory or defamatory, then dismissal may be the answer. Either way, it’s important that employers keep a sense of proportion in deciding on an outcome.

If you need help managing social media usage give us a call.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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