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.
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.
Unfortunately, reasonable accommodation for employees in the workplace continues to be the source of significant litigation and even today we continue to see outrageous examples of employers behaving badly.
We are now beginning to see reported cases involving charges and subsequent fines laid against employers for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker from workplace violence.
On October 13, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal decision which ordered an employer to pay a former employee 37 months of salary and benefits following termination.
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