Lawyer's warning after dinner lady suspended over controversial march
'What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas...' That's the message from a Preston-born employment lawyer after a dinner lady was suspended for being spotted on social media at a controversial march in Manchester.
But Gordon Turner has also warned employers of being too quick to whip out the suspension card.
“I would urge employers to think objectively and subjectively because their decisions almost have the same effect as a prison sentence on careers,” Gordon, of Gordon Turner Employment Lawyers said.
“Of course there are different circumstances, but I think in a lot of cases employers miss the chance to make their businesses better.
“They have the chance to educate their employees putting them in a strong position if it ever happens again.
“Suspension isn’t a neutral act and if you feel it was a knee-jerk reaction, you need to fight against it.”
The 27-year-old mum of five saw it advertised on Facebook and said she wanted to show her support for the families affected by the Manchester Arena bombing.
The dinner lady attended the UK Against Hate march in Piccadilly Gardens with her husband but says she wasn’t aware it was organised by former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.
She was captured in a video on social media and on the day after the march, June 12, she arrived at Moor Nook Primary School for work only to be pulled into the headteacher’s office.
Rachel was then handed a letter which suspended on full pay indefinitely.
And when the Lancashire Post ran the story, it sparked a huge reaction online.
Some wrote ‘it’s a free world’ as they sided with the Moor Nook resident.
Others said she should have taken more care when working for a school.
But Gordon says even in the law, these issues are a grey area.
“Employers should be very careful when suspending employees,” said Gordon, who has worked as a lawyers for 25 years.
“Do they really need to? Most have a reason and there are unlimited reasons that could fall under either ‘conduct’ or ‘substantial reason’.
“For employees, your conduct could come under extreme scrutiny so you have to be careful where you go and who you associate with.
“Everyone should take care. If you do something, you have to think if it is appropriate for where you work, especially if you work in a sensitive environment. With social media, the genie is out of the bottle.
“At one time you could do something and no-one could find out. Now there’s every chance there’ll be photos and everyone will know.
“The best thing to do if you’re worried about it is consult your employer before you do something.
“If you go somewhere and you think it’s wrong, leave. Put your cards on the table and make what’s happened known straight away.
“But on the other side, this is a free country and you should be able to go to things without permission from work, in most circumstances.”
Rachel has been suspended from work from more than a month, as the school continues its investigation into the incident.
The video which surfaced online of Rachel shows men bursting through a line of police officers before she walks past seconds later.
The letter Rachel received from the school describes her attending the rally as “potentially gross misconduct”.
And Gordon, who is originally from Ashton but works in London, says employers also have to be careful how they handle these kind of situations.
“Employers should not jump to conclusions and should think before suspending anyone,” he said.
“Disciplinary action shouldn’t be used when there has been a misunderstanding.
“Employers must ask themselves is this fair in all circumstances? Are there mitigating circumstances?
“There should be a presumption of innocence unless evidence is provided, especially if there is no history of offending before.
“Some issues are black and white but others can come under common sense.
“If you do something out of work but it then comes into the workplace then that’s when you have a conduct issue.
“If what you’ve done upsets people or disrupts the atmosphere then they may have a case.
“Of course this can differ depending on the type of place you work in.”
Gordon works with clients all over Lancashire, Manchester and London and says Rachel’s story caught his eye.
He said: “She offers quite a few mitigating circumstances, which are very big in the law.
“If you feel you’re in the right, suspensions are worth fighting because they can have a big impact on your career.
“Not fighting it puts you at risk of constructive dismissal and it can be very difficult to get another job.
“Potential employers tend to be inclined to believe previous employers that you were in the wrong.
“They aren’t likely to try and dig up the truth.”
Rachel has a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to find out if she can go back to work.
Gordon said: “Rachel’s case is a good example of why everyone should be careful about what they do and who with.”