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Employees airing their grievances in public: what employers can do

Posted on 21 November 2022

Recent press reports suggest that Manchester United F.C. (MUFC) has decided to sue its star striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, for breach of contract, following an interview Ronaldo conducted with TV journalist Piers Morgan. In the interview, Ronaldo made a number of allegations about MUFC, including that he is being forced out of the club, that senior executives did not care about the death of his newborn son earlier this year, and that MUFC's owners do not care about the club and are responsible for a chronic underinvestment in the club's facilities.

As a Premier League footballer, Ronaldo is signed up to the standard Premier League employment contract. That contract contains an express prohibition on the player doing or saying anything which is likely to bring their employer into disrepute. It also requires the player to give their employer reasonable notice of their intention to make statements to the press. Given what Ronaldo said, and the fact that MUFC was reportedly blindsided by the interview, it is easy to see why MUFC might think it has a viable breach of contract claim.

Premier League football aside, there may be some lessons here for employers and employees more generally. The first is that discretion is almost always advisable. Airing complaints in a public forum can leave an employee vulnerable to action by their employer. In most cases, this is likely to be disciplinary action, but as we have seen with Ronaldo, breach of contract claims are also possible. Such claims can be rooted in an express obligation not to bring the employer into disrepute (as is the case with Ronaldo), or in a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. 

Secondly, and on a related note, employers should ensure that they have appropriate processes in place to allow employees to air grievances internally. Employees should feel able to bring complaints both formally and informally, and have them dealt with in a sensitive and fair manner.  In most cases, a grievance should be heard by somebody unconnected to the complaint, and employees should be offered the opportunity to appeal the outcome if they remain dissatisfied. 

Finally, whilst most employees will not sit down for a television interview with Piers Morgan, many regularly publish comments on social media. It is in this space that employees often risk falling foul of an obligation not to bring their employer into disrepute. Employers should ensure that they have an appropriate social media policy in place, explaining to employees what is expected of them, both whilst at work and in their own time, and the potential consequences for failing to meet those expectations.   

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