Twitter Knows no Bounds: Suspension from Work for Tweeting a Stranger 


November 2014

Employment and Labour Bulletin
"Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand."

When British pop group Duran Duran sang about Rio, they did not likely have silky Queens Park Rangers (QPR) defender Rio Ferdinand, who was recently suspended for his Twitter conduct, in mind.

In his promising youth, the footballing Rio was the darling of the tabloid press. He was a lock for a first team place, starred in World Cup matches, and set English Premier League (EPL) transfer records when he was sold to Leeds then Manchester United.

The Ferdinand family has a rich footballing pedigree. Cousin Les was a prolific striker who had stints at various EPL clubs, including one during Newcastle United's most recent glory years. And Rio's younger brother Anton, who has also starred in the EPL, was the "alleged victim" in a case which ultimately went to a tribunal hearing. That case arose after Chelsea's John Terry (the defrocked England captain who in the past regularly partnered Rio in the Three Lions World Cup squad's central defensive pairing) erupted on field and directed a tirade at Anton. Terry's implausible explanation about why he is not a racist was ultimately accepted, at least by the tribunal. Rio Ferdinand is one of the EPL's more enthusiastic participants in social media, with a record number of Twitter followers and a virtual constant stream of tweets.

After a poor start to the current EPL season, supporters of Rio's current team QPR have become increasingly critical. One Twitter user tweeted as follows: "Maybe QPR will sign a good CB (centre-back) they need one." Presumably taking this as a personal attack since he plays that position, the 35-year-old former England captain Rio responded: "get ya mum in plays the field well son! #sket".

The Football Association (FA) charged Rio and found that the tweet constituted misconduct. His punishment was recently announced. The penalty: a three match suspension and a fine of 25,000 pounds. The rationale was that the post was "abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper". The FA noted, having regard for the league's code of conduct, that the circumstances were aggravated because the comment included a reference to gender.

The BBC's Match of the Day commentator and former England striker Gary Lineker, who has himself been the subject of an inquiry for his use of profanity on social media, was not the only one to ask about what "sket" means. Lineker said: "Thanks to @rioferdy5 I've just learnt a new word. The most surprising aspect of this charge is that the FA knew what a ‘sket' was." The Urban Dictionary indicates that the phrase refers to a "Caribbean term for Super Ho."

The crime and punishment was rendered in the same week that actress Chelsea Handler, who is a tabloid regular, announced that would cease participating in Instagram. Handler's purported outrage related to a refusal to allow her to post topless photos of herself. In an attempt to mock a picture of a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding a horse, Handler sought to post her own version. Her related post: "Anything a man can do, a woman has the right to do better. #kremlin."

Take Aways for Employers

The scope of individual conduct which may be subjected to scrutiny continues to expand. Not only is social media use in response to biting criticism under review, the content of employee posts may be minutely reviewed. And in Rio's particular case, that meant being sidelined for making an off-duty comment to a complete stranger, with discipline resulting over content which he might argue was acceptable in his culture. The case outcome was surely a function of the strong wording of FA Rule E3 which has a broad definition of misconduct designed to protect the reputation of the EPL. While many employers will not have celebrity employees in their midst, a well drafted social media policy or code of conduct will be a valuable tool when seeking to blow the whistle on actual or perceived reputational damage.

by George Waggott

a cautionary note

The foregoing provides only an overview and does not constitute legal advice. Readers are cautioned against making any decisions based on this material alone. Rather, specific legal advice should be obtained.

© McMillan LLP 2014