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25th June 2015

Twitter and a duty of care to Sir Tim Hunt

Human Resources and Duty of Care

The Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt was sacked earlier this month for making sexist comments at a Conference in Korea. "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls," he said. "Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry."

A Twitter storm ensued, and (according to The Times) Sir Tim Hunt was told to resign or be sacked; which he duly did.

There are two questions for us to consider as employers

The first, “resign or be sacked” is in fact a dismissal and, as no procedure was followed, an unfair one at that. Either Sir Tim’s contract is not an employment one or he has chosen not to follow the option of an Employment Tribunal claim (yet, perhaps). There are echoes here of Ed Balls’ sacking of the Head of Haringey children's service (on television, with no procedure) for which she won a six-figure pay-out. In the end these are legal issues and, if appropriate, they may be determined in court. The lesson is that precipitate action is unwise. There are, at the time of writing, many calls for Sir Tim to be reinstated.

The second question I would raise is of the duty of care owed to Sir Tim by his employers. He is a scientist, not someone who chose to be in the media spotlight. Let us trust he is able to cope. There are other echoes of history here. David Kelly’s suicide was blamed on his inability to cope with adverse media attention; Amy Winehouse’s inability to cope with the publicity that her success created is seen as a factor in her death; Susan Boyle (who shot to fame on Britain’s Got Talent) also struggled. In this case the Twitter storm has been described as a lynch mob.

Employers' responsibility towards staff

ACAS states: “Legally, employers must abide by …the common law duty of care. They also have a moral and ethical duty not to cause, or fail to prevent, physical or psychological injury…”

In this case I venture to suggest the employer failed its employee by not considering possible psychological injury when, in a Twitter storm for example, such is entirely likely. Here the employer is a large academic institution and may well be able to defend its actions in law. But smaller employers could find such defence more difficult and need to be much more conscious of their legal and moral duties.

High profile cases can be misleading and they often provide a poor example to others.

Malcolm Martin of Employer Solutions – QCS Expert Human Resources Contributor

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

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