Retail and consumer sector sees new forms of employee protest

Picketing is traditionally thought of as a form of protest in which people usually congregate outside a place of work in order to exert pressure on the employer by persuading others not to do business with the employer until a resolution has been met.

The recent case of Rogers v Picturehouse Cinemas Limited however, has now brought the term "cyber-picketing" into the public consciousness. This may ultimately be a far more damaging union tactic than the traditional form of protest and one which retail and consumer businesses need to be mindful of.

In the case the claimant, Kelly Rogers, was dismissed after sending an email following a union meeting encouraging colleagues to block book cinema seats in an online basket without any intention to purchase the tickets, in order to prevent genuine purchases.

However, a tribunal found Ms Rogers was unfairly dismissed in breach of employment law protecting union members as she had taken part in the activities of an independent trade union. They said the output of her action was not so different to traditional forms of trade union activity such as pickets and boycotts, which could also have inhibited ticket sales on strike days. The tribunal concluded:

"It might be said that the activity was a response to the technological advances in the way that tickets are sold.”

Is this a one-off or a developing trend we might see in organisations where online sales or bookings are a significant part of generating revenue from customers?

There can be no disputing that employee activism is on the rise. A generational shift in values has seen employees becoming more emboldened to challenge their employers on issues that matter to them. Recent examples include:

  • over 5000 Amazon employees signing a petition to draw attention to their expectations around climate change and the use of facial recognition software
  • the Google walkouts which saw thousands of staff protest at claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism.

Our experience of advising HR teams has shown us that employees are also making demands of their employers on an individual basis, sometimes using template letters which have been provided by a particular lobby or pressure group.

The combination of more activism, a willingness to hold employers to account on issues that matter to employees, and the move to cyber-picketing and other modern, technology-based forms of protest certainly present a more challenging environment for those running retail and consumer businesses.

Keeping your employees engaged and finding forms of consultation which will allow wider issues to be addressed are an obvious starting point but also think about how well you are set up to deal with the threat of new forms of internal protest and whether disciplinary rules are appropriately drafted to cover behaviour inciting business disruption.

For more information on this topic, please contact me on 01752 675 058 or [email protected]. For more information about our legal services for retail companies, see here.