Johnson caught − Criminal offences and employment

The six year prison sentence meted out to Adam Johnson, the disgraced footballer of Sunderland Association Football Club Limited ("Sunderland”), has brought to focus the issues of role models in today’s society abusing their position. It has also raised employment law issues, concerning the actions employers can take towards employees who have committed criminal activities.

During his trial, it was confirmed that Johnson he had advised Margaret Byrne, Chief Executive of Sunderland, that he had groomed and kissed a minor. Despite this information, Johnson was permitted to play for Sunderland between 4th May 2015 to 11th February 2016, on which day he was sacked following his decision to plead guilty on 10th February 2016 on the first day of his trial to these two offences. Ms Byrne has subsequently resigned, stating that she had not informed the other members of Sunderland’s Board of Johnson’s admission of guilt to her. Regardless of the morality of allowing a guilty employee to continue to work for their employer, in this case continuing to receive his reported weekly wage of £60,000.00, this sequence of events does raise the question as to whether an employer can dismiss an employee who is guilty of committing criminal activities.

If an employee is accused of committing a criminal act whilst in employment, an employer should consider what effect any admission or conviction would have upon the employee’s ability to carry out their role. By way of an example, an employer may be permitted to dismiss an employee whose sole duties are to drive for a living if they have been disqualified from driving. However, the employer should also consider the impact this would have on its own reputation and the employee’s length of service. Committing a criminal act does not therefore automatically mean that an employer can terminate an employee’s employment.

In Johnson’s case, if Sunderland had dismissed him on 4th May 2015 his dismissal would likely have been fair; having admitted guilt of grooming and kissing a fan of the club who was only 15 at the time would have rendered him unable to perform his role any longer. He was required to come into contact with children in his role as a professional footballer, both on match days and during community events, and the Club could not have reasonably prevented him interacting with those fans. The damage to Sunderland’s reputation would also have been significant. On this basis, it would clearly have been unreasonable for Johnson to have continued in his role and his employment would have been fairly terminated. The fact that he did not plead guilty until 10th February 2016 is largely irrelevant; as soon as he admitted his guilt to Ms Byrne, his employer could have reasonably terminated his employment.

It should be made clear that there is a significant difference with being charged with committing a criminal offence and actually being found guilty of committing one. It will generally be more difficult to justify the dismissal of an employee merely because they have been accused of criminal activity.

It is understood that Johnson is appealing against both his conviction for one further count of sexual activity with a minor and his six year prison sentence. It does not appear that he will be appealing against his dismissal from his employer and, even if his appeal results in the quashing of his prison sentence, the writer suggests that any such employment appeal would be misguided.

If you have are an employer or employee who are affected by criminal charges or convictions, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment Team on 01908 660966, 01604 828282, or by contacting us here.