Thumbs down for employer communicating with staff via WhatsApp emoji

Apprentice who signalled he did not want to join subsidy scheme awarded €1,000

An apprentice carpenter has been awarded €1,000 after he was dismissed by a company that asked employees to confirm their participation in the Government’s temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme through a WhatsApp thumb-up or thumb-down emoji.

The joinery firm set up the WhatsApp group in March 2020 to determine who wished to avail of the subsidy when the pandemic forced the business to shut down on a temporary basis.

An apprentice carpenter who replied with a thumbs down emoji was removed from the WhatsApp group. He claimed he was then informed that if he didn’t wish to participate in the scheme, there would be no job for him when the company reopened.

The apprentice brought a case to the Workplace Relations Commission, whose adjudicator, Thomas O'Driscoll, recommended the employer pay him €1,000 compensation for unfair dismissal.

The employee gave the thumb-down emoji because 70 per cent of his wages would have equated to about €160, which was not a viable financial option for him as he had to provide for his family.

Crass stupidity

In his ruling, Mr O’Driscoll said: “The Covid-19 lockdown has had an effect on everyone, but it does not absolve employers from the responsibility of dealing in a proper manner when it comes to lay-off and/or potential dismissal.

“Communicating by WhatsApp and not issuing a promised formal letter signifies in itself that the employer fell short of what a reasonable employer would have done in the circumstances.”

Mr O’Driscoll found that the employee “had no option under the circumstances but to honestly believe that he had been dismissed and seek other work, which he did so in July 2020”.

The employer had denied a dismissal had taken place.

Dublin-based employment law expert Richard Grogan described as "incredibly stupid" that an employer would communicate with employees on an important workplace issue via emojis.

Mr Grogan said emojis “have their place in the workplace for questions like ‘Who is for coffee?’ or ‘Does this date suit for our Christmas party?’ but they were not appropriate for issues that dealt with terms and conditions. “Employee relations are rarely as black and white as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoji,” he said. “ Communicating via emojis is a particularly inappropriate way of dealing with complex issues and comes into the realm of crass stupidity.”

Gordon Deegan

Gordon Deegan

Gordon Deegan is a contributor to The Irish Times