Cecil the Lion has become something of a household name since his expiry at the hands of Minnesotan dentist Walter Palmer last month, and Mr Palmer too has been reluctantly thrust into the media spotlight.
But what do Mr Palmer, Mr Qadar (the Stockbroker who tweeted “Think I just hit a cyclist. But I’m late for work so had to drive off lol”) https://www.employmentlawworldview.com/broker-told-to-get-on-his-bike-after-twitter-joke-falls-flat/ and Mr Chaudhry (the Clifford Chance trainee who filmed a controversial video message which went viral within days of the Charlie Hebdo attack) https://www.employmentlawworldview.com/jury-still-out-on-uk-lawyers-rights-to-freedom-of-speech/ all have in common? Aside from their appearance in this blog, they have all been the subject of social media campaigns calling for their dismissal.
Given that Mr Palmer is the owner of his dental practice this is of course entirely hypothetical, but whether you are for, against, or merely indifferent to his hunting pastime, if he were one of your employees in the UK and his conduct had stirred up this level of public outcry, what would you do? Would you dismiss him? Could you fairly dismiss him for his conduct?
This is clearly a case of out of hours conduct – he was on holiday enjoying an activity which he had engaged in for a number of years without incident or media attention. Mr Palmer acknowledges that his chosen pastime was one that he kept quiet. In a letter to his patients after the events he is reported to have said: “I don’t often talk about hunting with my patients because it can be a divisive and emotionally charged topic,” and “I understand and respect that not everyone shares the same views on hunting.” Lion hunting is legal in parts of Africa and Mr Palmer asserts that he was on a lawful hunting trip at the time. However, the degree of public outcry which his conduct has sparked and the impact that this has had on his dental practice (which has been closed since he was outed as Cecil’s killer) has without a doubt had an impact on the business.
Local residents suggest that his dental practice is all but finished. It remains to be seen whether it will weather the media storm. Undeniably however, as Mr Palmer has said, he has been in the news “for reasons that have nothing to do with my profession or the care I provide for you”. Quite. His conduct has no impact on the professional service he provides, although there are undoubtedly some people (myself included) who might feel some trepidation sitting in that chair. But why? Objectively this doesn’t touch upon Mr Palmer’s professional abilities in any way – indeed, if having a steady hand is a good thing for a dentist, his ability to face a lion with only a bow and arrow might be seen as a positive commendation. On the other hand, if your employee is forced into hiding, as Mr Palmer has apparently found himself, and if threats are made against him and his practice/employer, then this clearly would impinge on his work. If those threats would put other staff at risk through someone lunatic enough to carry them out, then the employer would have a pretty strong hand.
What if Mr Palmer were in an altogether different business, one whose major clients said that they would cease to use it if it continued to employ him? This would of course depend on the particular circumstances, but if the employer could demonstrate that a material number of its clients would no longer work with him, there may also be some scope for a fair dismissal. The burden would be squarely on the employer to show something more than a transient public outcry, even if it did include (as on Cecil’s behalf) “high profile” figures like Piers Morgan and Cara Delevingne. There would have to be some concrete tangible adverse impact on the business, or some behaviour by Mr Palmer which compounded the problem or showed a blatant lack of regard for the public view. If visitors to the office were greeted by Cecil stuffed and mounted in Reception, for example, the heat under Mr Palmer’s hypothetical employer would go up materially.
And so I end where we began #cecilthelion RIP