C’Mon Everybody … Do the Harlem Shake


What do an Oxford Librarian, a school teacher and a group of miners in Western Australia have in common?

Answer: they’ve all been sacked for performing the Harlem Shake at work.

The Harlem Shake, m’lud, is the latest You Tube craze in which groups of people dance in a wild, unco-ordinated fashion, in fancy dress,  to a piece of music by a fellow called Baauer. It’s not to be confused with the song “Harlem Shuffle” by the Rolling Stones, a band with whom you might be familiar m’lud.  Yes, you may have seen it at the English National Ballet, m’lud.

In the case of Calypso Nash, the librarian at St Hilda’s, Oxford, she wasn’t involved in the “event”, had no knowledge it was going to happen and wasn’t even on the premises when the students were shaking their stuff, at 11.30 pm on a Sunday evening. This didn’t stop her from getting the sack for failing to prevent the event occurring.  The students involved were all fined.A petition has been started calling for her reinstatement.

The BBC is also reporting that a teacher at a comprehensive school in Wales has been suspended for filming and posting a Harlem Shake from a classroom, pending an investigation.

The miners in Western Australia were sacked for performing it underground, because of safety fears.

Have the employers overreacted? Are they being killjoys or are they right to take disciplinary action?

The answer to that must depend on an assessment of the facts in each case. The treatment of the Oxford librarian seems, on the face of it, very harsh. Did the College investigate what happened?  Even in the most serious cases of misconduct an employer must carry out a thorough and fair investigation before commencing a disciplinary process. If it did, was dismissal within the range of reasonable responses, being the test that an Employment Tribunal would apply if she were to pursue a claim? On the basis of the very few facts published it seems unlikely that her dismissal was reasonable.

The University has not commented on the issue but, presumably, they were concerned to protect their reputation, as will most employers. In this instance, it seems to have backfired as far more publicity has attached to the decision to sack Nash then to the original video.  As social media becomes more prevalent in all areas of life, employers need to seriously think about how they protect their reputation and whether in taking action of this sort they might not actually be causing more harm than they are seeking to prevent.

Most employers will be concerned to protect their reputation, but there might be other considerations, such as health and safety (in the case of the miners) and child protection (in the case of minors) i.e. not allowing them to be identified on the video. “Health and safety” is routinely trotted out to justify any petty bureaucratic obstructionism or as a cover for sheer wilful refusal to co-operate in all walks of life.  Sometimes though it does have meaning and if an employer can justifiably claim that a Harlem Shake did endanger health and safety, disciplinary action may be justifiable. Any employer confronted with their employees performing a Harlem Shake (or whatever other internet meme craze that may follow it) ought to take a very long sober consideration of what occurred and how it affects them before taking disciplinary action.

Some companies, keen to show how hip and trendy they are, might decide to embrace the Shake themselves – such as this law firm. Hmm …

(Thanks to @colmmu)

Michael Scutt, Employment Solicitor 

Employment solicitor with Crane and Staples, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Blogger & writer. I like cycling, cricket, football and history.