· 2 min read · Features

John Terry and Ashley Cole: How to act when an employee's activities outside the workplace damages team morale within it

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The media scrum surrounding two high-profile England international footballers is any employer's most extravagant nightmare. John Terry and Ashley Cole, along with their employer, Chelsea FC, have been thrust into the spotlight by allegations about the players' private lives, with apparent negative consequences for Terry's game, as well as the very public loss of his captaincy of the England team. Worse still, the potential line-up for the England squad has been disrupted by Wayne Bridge's refusal to be put forward for selection for the squad. In many people's eyes, this drastically weakens England's chances of success in South Africa and comes at a time when football at its highest level is being examined critically in the light of mounting club debts and the size of some players' salaries.

Is this familiar?  Actions taken by employees outside the workplace can have hugely disruptive consequences for their employers, both in terms of internal morale and in terms of damage to the employer's reputation.  So what can organisations do in such circumstances?

Take prompt and appropriate action

Behaviour that brings an employer into disrepute, whether or not it takes place during working hours or in the course of an employee's duties, may constitute gross misconduct, leading to summary dismissal. Terry may have had the England captaincy taken away from him but his club, Chelsea, appears not to have taken any action against him.  In fact, although much has been made of his alleged extra-marital fling with his former team-mate's ex-girlfriend, in some people's view this has very little to do with his employer now that Bridge no longer plays for Chelsea. If, however, there were any substance to other allegations made about him and his use of Chelsea facilities, the club could well be justified in taking appropriate action against him.

Be consistent and fair

Cole seems to have been treated differently, and potentially more severely, by his employer than Terry. It has been reported that Chelsea FC has considered fining Cole at least £200,000, and possibly double that amount, for reasons related to his alleged extra-marital activity. Terry was not fined in relation to his own alleged affair, and was given time off to spend with his family. At the same time, it has also been reported that club employees actually gave assistance to one of Cole's alleged lovers to help her fend off media attention. 

Cole has been quoted as saying he feels "victimised" and in legal terms the door could be open for him to resign and claim constructive dismissal and, potentially, race discrimination.  Such a claim would be extremely expensive and could do enormous damage to Chelsea's reputation. While it seems that Cole is unlikely to do this, another employee in a similar situation might well enforce his or her rights in the employment tribunal and so in the public domain. Consistent and fair treatment of employees would help drastically reduce such a risk. 

Take preventative steps

Events outside the workplace can have seismic repercussions within it. A once tight-knit, efficient and happy team can be destroyed.  Morale can plummet, communication may all but disappear, and outcomes become significantly compromised: viz. reports of Terry's drastically reduced performance during some recent Chelsea games and Bridge's refusal to agree to play alongside his former team-mate at the World Cup. 

Employers should introduce and enforce clear codes of conduct. While it is impossible (and would be wrong) for an employer to try to assert control over employees' private lives, simple reporting obligations, for instance, can help employers monitor potential sources of discord, thereby enabling them to intervene where appropriate.  It may be necessary, for example, to re-jig the composition of any team in the workplace in which two individuals have become romantically involved with each other, or each other's partners or spouses, so as to ensure fair treatment within that team and reduce any perception of favouritism. 

In the case of football, commentators have suggested it is time that clubs took steps to change their culture and to stop being perceived to encourage or collude in behaviour that currently seems to dominate the redtops' front pages. This is sound advice for any employer.

Jessica Corsi is a partner at Doyle Clayton employment solicitors