HR & Management

To tweet or not to tweet – what you can learn about social media from Benedict Cumberbatch row

6 min read

07 September 2015

The impact of social media in the workplace – in particular Twitter – has been in the news again this month when Tim Roberts ruffled a few feathers in the theatre world. Emma Hamnett, employment law partner at Clarke Willmott, discusses the importance of a robust social media policy.

For many people outside of the theatre world, Tim Roberts was a relatively unknown individual – until August. This all changed when Roberts’ arguably very extreme and provocative tweets culminated in him walking away from his job of over 30 years, when he faced disciplinary action by his employer for those tweets.

Roberts, described by the Telegraph as a “veteran stage producer” worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, Really Useful Theatres (RUT). Roberts became embroiled in a row with actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans when he tweeted this about Cumberbatch’s role as Hamlet:

Whilst this was a relatively innocuous tweet in itself, it sparked a backlash of Twitter comments from Cumberbatch’s mainly female fans; following which Roberts made various further offensive comments on Twitter – which were indignantly forwarded by the young women he was attacking to his employer. His tweets were ugly in their tone, sexist, racist and used extreme swear language best described as “colourful” (#nottoberepeatedoversundaylunch). 

In response the employer proposed to take Roberts to a disciplinary hearing but, when faced with this process, he resigned before action could be taken. 

Roberts has since argued that his tweets were his own, sent from his personal account and in his own time and thus he can say what he likes. He accused the RUT of suppressing his freedom of speech and claimed he was not attacking the company he worked for – and so should have had the right to say what he wanted. 

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The RUT argued that he brought the brand into disrepute – an argument commonly used by employers when taking action against employees for comments made on social media. In this case, Roberts was talking in the context of the industry he worked in and the women he insulted on Twitter were potential theatregoers. Furthermore, some of the tweets would offend the most thick-skinned of individuals and could form the basis of disciplinary action on the basis of being inappropriate in themselves – especially when posted on a public internet account.

In terms of how the Courts view such matters, cases on the abuse of social media in the workplace considered by the Employment Tribunal to date indicate that the details of how and when the posting was made are not significant. The tribunal tends not to focus on whether the tweet or posting was made in or out of normal working hours or whether it was made from a work-related profile or account. Instead, what is more relevant is whether there is a clear connection between the person and the workplace, as it is this connection which has the potential to harm the employer’s reputation. 

This can be because the employer is named in the comment, because the individual is a high-profile employee and well-associated with their employer’s brand or, as in this case, because the tweets reach the client, or have the potential to reach the client or customer, of the employer in question. 

So what can employers do? 

Used effectively social media is an invaluable tool that can be used by employees to reach clients and potential new business contacts and to communicate with them.

Savvy employers should, however, ensure that they have a clear and robust social media policy in place – making sure that their employees are aware of the policy and that managers are trained in the monitoring and consistent implementation of that policy. 

A social media policy should deal with the use of all forms of social media including, for example, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google +, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, and blogs. The policy can, however, be tailored to the sites used by particular employees in particular sectors or industries.

The policy should clearly set out the standards of behaviour and the types of posts and communications which are not acceptable when using social media, making clear that this applies to personal postings and applies regardless of whether the communication is made during work hours or not.

Employers will want the ability to take swift and decisive action, potentially dismissal, for an employees’ inappropriate comments and having a policy in place, which employees are aware of, is key to this.

Emma Hamnett is employment law partner at Clarke Willmott.