News that 17-year-old Paris Brown has resigned from her job as the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner, in the wake of a media storm about comments she made on Twitter when she was just 14, raises important questions about recruitment procedures, says lawyer Paula Whelan.
Brown’s demise has by no means been all of her own making. While there can be no doubt her tweets were ill-considered and offensive, for which Brown has subsequently apologised, Kent Police could have foreseen this issue if they had thought to carry out routine online enquiries.
Indeed, this action could have protected Paris from the torrent of media criticism that followed, which must have been extremely upsetting for such a young person.
Ann Barnes, Kent’s police crime commissioner, has admitted that the organisation did not think to vet Paris’s tweets prior to her appointment – although she did ask Paris if she held any views or if there was anything in her past that could embarrass her.
For a socially active young person who is about to be appointed to a new job, this kind of disclosure request would be virtually impossible to answer accurately on the spot. For a start, it would require the ability to recall the detail of every tweet or Facebook post she has ever made.
While Brown’s decision to resign is understandable in the circumstances – in the light of the media frenzy by which she was engulfed – her employer has perhaps got off lightly as a result.
If Brown had opted to stay in post and suffered psychological damage as a result of her media treatment, which prevented her from doing her job, she may even have had a claim against her employer on the grounds that their recruitment procedures were negligent.
While Paris’s resignation means that this point will not be tested by a tribunal, employers need to learn from this situation – and they need to learn quickly. When recruiting for any new post, but particularly one in the public eye, it is no longer sufficient for them to simply ask a candidate whether “there is anything else they should know”.
More robust procedures may now be required to check a candidate’s suitability, including some assessment of their online media profile.
A lack of case law in this area makes it a difficult one for employers. Most prefer not to trawl employees’ social media activity for evidence of misconduct on a routine basis. They prefer to take the view that if evidence of misconduct is brought to their attention, they will use it. Some employers may now wish to take a more proactive approach to monitoring employees’ online activity.
Employers’ responsibilities in this area continue after an appointment is made. Most companies already have social media policies in place making it clear that posts made by employees on their personal accounts that negatively impact on their employer’s reputation will not be tolerated. Such action would constitute ‘misconduct’ and provide grounds for dismissal. However, few companies make a point of stressing such policies to recruits as part of their induction process, despite the potential reputational and litigation risks.
Brown’s fate is a wake-up call for the digital generation and employers alike.
Paula Whelan is an employment lawyer at Shakespeares