“Jokes” and cultural issues in the workplace

When Michael McFeat posted a picture of co-workers at a work canteen along with a caption, I doubt he expected that less than a week later he would find his job at risk, was being deported and would have become one of the most read stories on the BBC website for more than 2 days.

While his story has clearly caused much hilarity among readers, it is again a reminder to employees about the need to be careful about what they publish.

Mr McFeat worked at Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan and on 31 December 2015 he posted a picture on Facebook of Kyrgyz colleagues along with a comment that the locals were enjoying “there [sic] special delicacy” which he equated to a horse’s genitalia. Unsurprising his colleagues took offence and demanded an apology from the mine owners. The Kyrgyz authorities also became involved. Mr McFeat removed the post and apologised but this did not prevent him being deported. Although the official reason given for the deportation was that he held incorrect documentation it is questionable as to whether the Facebook post and its fallout may have been the real reason.

Notwithstanding the “reason” for his departure from Kyrgyzstan, his post clearly caused considerable disharmony with colleagues, trouble for his employer and Mr McFeat finds himself looking for a new job. As with previous stories which have hit the media, it comes as a cautionary tale of the dangers of unguarded social media comments which can be viewed by a much wider audience (and one holding different views) than might be initially envisaged.

Mr McFeat was clear in his subsequent post that he meant no offence and it would appear that the local police accepted that he was not inciting ethnic violence through his comments. That said, social media posts often fail to fully convey tone and context and viewed in the cold light of day can be interpreted differently than might have been intended. The matter also highlights the need to show cultural sensitivity and the fact that humour is one of those concepts that does not travel well. While such comments (made about for instance haggis or Yorkshire puddings) might be laughed off in the UK, other nationalities may not find remarks about their local cuisine funny. Add in comments which allude to cultural differences or features and most would appreciate that there are dangers. For employees, the lesson is clear – be careful what you post especially where it involves work colleagues. While personal posts will normally have no effect on your employment, they can do so and an employer is entitled to act where an employee’s social media utterances affect the employment relationship.

The situation is also a warning to employers about the need to ensure they have robust policies covering their worker’s social media usage. Employees should be made aware of any restrictions upon them so that there is clarity. It is also useful to ensure that where employees are working abroad, they are reminded about any particular local customs and laws which must be adhered to while they are in the foreign country. Often this will extend beyond making insensitive comments about the country and/or its rulers and could include a wider range of cultural issues, i.e. alcohol consumption or public displays of affection. Some may (or should) be obvious to individuals, but an employer is wise to avoid dubiety and ensure they have highlighted such differences to workers in advance. At worst, the employer is reiterating existing knowledge. It might also prevent potential cross-border disputes, the loss of employees (due to deportation and/or imprisonment), unwanted media attention and general problems with local industrial relations!

Debbie Fellows is an specialist employment law solicitor. If you have queries about employee's use of social media please contact Debbie on 01382 229111 or email dfellows@thorntons-law.co.uk

Categories: Employment

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