Employees whose out-of-hours activities compromise their employer's reputation could face serious consequences, writes Claire Reynolds

Staff often think their private life is just that - private. But this is not always the case, as a number of employees have found out to their cost, including The Apprentice’s Katie Hopkins. The tabloids ran full-colour photos of Ms Hopkins topless with a married man in a cornfield. Her employer - the Met Office - later terminated its relationship with her, in part because of her private life.

Healthcare providers invest heavily in building a good reputation and take pains to protect it. An employee whose activities damage that reputation can expect serious consequences.

And employees who think out-of-hours activities do not count are mistaken. The key question is: does the off-duty activity or misconduct affect their work?

Many organisations take a dim view of certain extracurricular activities. The General Social Care Council suspended a social worker after she advertised herself as an escort with an internet agency. In doing so, she did not break any law and no individual member of the public was put at direct risk. However, the council felt suspending her ensured that the profession's reputation was safeguarded and public confidence maintained.

In another case, the Probation Service dismissed a probation officer because it felt that his out-of-work activities were incompatible with his role and responsibilities. He was the director of a company selling bondage, domination and sado-masochism products through the internet and also performed fire shows at hedonist and fetish clubs.

Public domain

The officer argued that the dismissal infringed his human rights. But there is no right to a private life where activities are in the public domain. He also argued that his right to freedom of expression had been violated. If there was such a violation, then it was found to be justified: the officer's activities could damage the probation service and its reputation and so it was reasonable to curb them.

Interesting as these examples are, there are plenty of less salacious and perhaps more typical examples, such as shoplifting, football hooliganism and drunk-driving convictions. But the test is the same - does the conduct affect performance on the job and the organisation?

Sometimes employees think anything goes provided it is for charity. There has been a spate of charity calendars featuring almost-naked professionals ranging from nurses to firemen. Employers often take a much more relaxed approach to activities associated with charitable ventures.

Can there be one rule for commercial ventures and another for charitable ones? Yes - context is everything and a charitable activity will probably not have an adverse effect on an organisation's reputation. It may even have a positive effect.