The BBC has reinstated presenter Gary Lineker after his criticism of the Government’s immigration policy saw him taken off air, sparking a mini-mutiny at the national broadcaster.
Much of the BBC's sports coverage was axed over the weekend, as presenters and pundits refused to work, in a show of solidarity with Lineker.
The Match of the Day host had tweeted that the language of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, used when launching a new asylum policy, was akin to rhetoric used in 1930s Germany.
The tweet landed him in hot water, with some suggesting he had breached the BBC’s code of conduct on impartiality. Bosses subsequently announced Lineker would “step back” from hosting Match Of The Day.
This decision saw co-presenters including Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Alex Scott, alongside other pundits and commentators, refuse to appear on the Beeb’s weekend football programmes, which led to an eerily silent show absent of its trademark theme music, commentary and match analysis.
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On Monday March 13, the BBC bowed to widespread pressure, announcing that Lineker would return to the show for the coming weekend.
Bosses also apologised to Lineker and announced an independent review into social media usage guidelines.
Taking to social media, Lineker said: "After a surreal few days, I'm delighted that we have navigated a way through this. I want to thank you all for the incredible support, particularly my colleagues at BBC Sport, for the remarkable show of solidarity. Football is a team game but their backing was overwhelming."
Lineker also thanked BBC Director-General Tim Davie "for his understanding during this difficult period".
Meanwhile, Davie said: "Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologise for this.
"The potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC's social media guidance that was introduced in 2020 is recognised. I want to get matters resolved and our sport content back on air.
A victory for 'people power'?
Whilst we’ll get into the obvious issue of social media policies later in this piece, the Lineker controversy has thrown up the issue of employee power, after colleagues decided to ditch the weekend’s show in solidarity with Lineker.
On first glance, people leaders may feel concerned that this example could embolden employees to stage walkouts in support of colleagues who they feel have been wrongly disciplined or dismissed – much like how the RMT union’s long-term rail strikes appear to have triggered a domino effect of workers voting to strike across other sectors.
But as David Eastwood, Head of Team and Solicitor at WorkNest explains, Lineker’s colleagues are in a more privileged position to be able to protest.
“The controversy around Gary Lineker and the BBC is a unique situation,” he explained to HR Grapevine.
“His colleagues who decided to support him – Alan Shearer and Ian Wright – have the luxury that they can afford to upset their employer, and they had support from significant individuals and organisations for their stance. This wouldn’t be the case in an ordinary employment situation, nor would the story hit national news. So this issue is more than it would have been in the real world.
“If employees want to act collectively, this would usually be in the context of union lead action. This type of informal action wouldn’t usually be the way to deal with such a situation. Refusing to do your job, such as not showing up to present the sports programmes in protest, would usually risk misconduct proceedings.”
So, what about the ordinary working folk who might consider voting with their feet, in support of an aggrieved colleague?
Samantha Owen, Senior Employment Law Solicitor at Harper James, said: “How you respond to employees who revolt will be reliant on the facts, and we would recommend taking legal advice if anything like this happens in your workforce.
“The first step ought to be to speak to the employees and reach an appropriate balance between firm and fair. You should hear them out, respond to any concerns but also set clear boundaries and remind them of their contractual obligations. There’s an obligation on them to attend work and to perform their role with due care and skill. Where there is repeated or serious insubordination, this of itself could be an act of misconduct – potentially gross misconduct, where that employee could be dismissed without notice.
“The Lineker/BBC dispute brings the importance of a robust social media policy into sharp focus. Your policy is there to protect your business and its reputation. The policy should make clear what conduct online is considered inappropriate and what the consequences are of breaching the terms of the policy. The rules you set should be consistently applied, to avoid any allegations of unfairness.”
Social media can have ‘seismic impact’ on the workforce
Dovetailing on Owen’s latter point about social media policies, Jim Moore, Employee Relations Expert at HR consultants Hamilton Nash, said: “Not many people have as many online followers as Gary Lineker, but a poorly thought-through post on social media can still have a seismic impact on employees and employers alike.
“There are many cases where employees have lost their jobs due to ill-judged social media posts, with one worker famously sacked by Apple for ranting about his employer on a private Facebook page.
“Gary Lineker’s case shows how important it is for an employer's social media policies to be specific about what is and what isn’t acceptable. Policies should be carefully balanced between employees’ rights to express personal opinions and the employers’ expectations that the company is not dragged into disrepute.
“There is also no point in having a social media policy if employees don’t know about their responsibilities, so regular awareness sessions are needed to keep workers abreast of any changes to policies. It’s also important to remember that the internet has a long memory, and the past can come back to haunt us.
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More continues: “Posts written years ago when we were young can resurface when we apply for a job. Many employers will investigate an applicant’s social media history as part of a pre-employment check.
“Alexi McCammond resigned from Teen Vogue magazine shortly after being hired, when historic tweets containing racist comments were uncovered.
“Social media has the power to amplify our comments so the whole world can hear, and companies need a good social media policy to keep that power in check.”
Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, also commented: “Employees are entitled to hold their own opinions on any political, social, religious, topical or other matter. However, in some cases, it will not be appropriate for staff to express them in the workplace; or, the way in which they are manifested in work can be unreasonable. Where this happens, employers are able to take reasonable action against them. This has been confirmed by several recent tribunal cases.
"This being said, it’s important to remember that some opinions may be protected under the Equality Act 2010 as a philosophical belief. As such, businesses should be careful that they don’t discriminate against an employee, or victimise others who support the employee with their beliefs, as doing so may lead to tribunal claims.
“The situation with Gary Lineker and the BBC serves as a timely reminder to employers to review their social media policy and make amends where necessary to ensure it is reasonable for today’s digital environment," Price continues.
“Social media continues to evolve and grow; just a few years ago, TikTok was no more than an idea on paper, yet today it’s one of the most used digital platforms. It can sometimes be difficult for businesses to keep up with such technological advances, but it’s important they do so, to avoid issues like this arising.
“Ultimately, a reasonable and relevant social media policy can help safeguard both the employee and employer, as all parties are aware of what constitutes appropriate use. Where the policy is breached, employers are then able to take fair action against the employee for it. A regular review should be completed of all contractual policies, to ensure they continue to provide the most benefit to all.”
How the situation relates to freelance contracts
Another issue of note in this case is that Lineker is actually a freelance presenter, which throws a whole host of new employment law issues into the debate, as Sharokh Koussari, employment partner at Axiom DWFM, explains.
“From an employment law standpoint, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Gary Lineker saga is the BBC’s failure to properly address how its freelancers should ensure that the organisation’s values of impartiality in its output were upheld in their social media posts," Koussari said.
"It appears that the regulation of Mr Lineker (and other freelancers)’s behaviour was left to his contractual arrangements. This is less than desirable as it means different parts of the workforce are subjected to different rules even though they are answerable to the same organisation.”