The Guardian has reported that the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, has issued instructions that probation officers face the risk of disciplinary action if they publicly criticise him or his plans on Twitter or other social media.
The ban follows the announcement of Grayling’s controversial plans to outsource 70% of the probation officers’ work with offenders.
The gag is reported to include “any comments that are made in criticism or designed to undermine the justice secretary’s policy or actions“, and that retweeting others’ comments will be treated as “incitement or approval“.
This week also saw the introduction of new instructions on the use of social media by probation trusts.
The Government has previously made it clear that the use and misuse of social media will be taken seriously. Last month it was reported that 3 civil servants were dismissed from the Home Office for breaches of the social media policy and in January it came to light that 116 civil servants were disciplined by the Department for Work and Pensions between 2009 and 2012 in relation to a social media policy, resulting in 11 dismissals.
Employers are entitled to protect their reputation and to take steps to avoid damaging comments from employees being made in public, either online or out loud. However, the Government runs the risk of further public criticism by being over-sensitive and reactionary in the way that it disciplines its employees. Reputational damage can be an unfortunate but all too obvious bi-product of a heavy handed approach to employee misconduct, especially when public feeling is running high.
It is interesting to note the senior level of employees and trustees who are speaking out against the Justice Secretary in the current case, with the threat that probation trust board members may face suspension or removal from office if there is perceived to be a loss of confidence or a breakdown of trust involved.
Many employees will be critical of their employer, but how individuals choose to voice their concerns and the methods they adopt can land them in disciplinary hot water. If there are genuine concerns, the best place to raise them is with the employer or an appropriate third party. In the same week that NHS whistle blowing gagging orders have been banned by government, it seems churlish to reprimand civil servants who may be raising valid concerns in good faith and in the public interest.