What employment lessons can you take away from the Tiger King

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03 April, 2020

Hey you cool cats and kittens, its James Barron from Forbes Solicitors here to give you an update on what employment law issues you can take away from the Netflix sensation Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

If you have not seen Tiger King it primarily follows Joe Exotic, the Tiger King himself and an owner of a zoo where visitors can interact and meet various big cats. You also get to meet some of Joe's employees, his two husbands (that is two husbands he had at the same time), the owner of another zoo, Doc Antle, and Joe's nemesis an animal rights activist called Carole Baskin. If you haven't seen it this article may contain spoilers and you are also probably thinking reading the introduction to this article that working at home with a constant stream of Thomas & Friends and PJ Masks on TV is starting to get to me.

For those of you who have seen Tiger King you probably think the only bit of practical advice you can take away from watching it is not to put perfume on your shoes when entering a lion pen, but there are some practical issues you can take away from watching Tiger King.

Health and Safety

When you are first introduced to Joe's employees one thing that stands out is that one employee has prosthetic legs and another has an amputated arm, with both working with tigers and other big cats this should be an immediate red flag that perhaps Joe is a bit lax with their health and safety requirements.

In the show you do witness the aftermath of Joe's employee "Saff" suffering a severe bite on her arm from a tiger. Joe initially seems concerned, but you later discover this is due to his concern about whether he will ever financially recover from an employee having their arm bitten by tiger at his zoo.

Now if his zoo was in the UK it is likely that Joe may have gotten a visit from the Health and Safety Executive, but also there this an implied contractual term that an employer will take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees and there are specific provisions within the Employment Rights Act 1996 in relation to health and safety issues which Joe has very likely breached.

Saff incidentally chose to have her arm amputated rather than undergoing reconstructive surgery and returned to work after seven days.

Failure to Make Reasonable Adjustments

It turns out the employee who has prosthetic legs, John Reinke, didn't have his legs amputated as a result of an accident involving tigers, but in a ziplining accident. However, when explaining the accident this is not actually how he ended up having his legs amputated.

Following the accident, he continued working, walking about 20 miles a day at the zoo, on his damaged legs which caused severe damage to his feet which resulted in the amputations.

This should be relatively obvious, but an employee asking not to walk 20 miles a day so they can avoid having their legs amputated is very much a reasonable adjustment that you should be making.

Failure to Follow Reasonable Management Instructions

It is an implied term in every employment contract that an employee will obey their employers' reasonable instructions, a failure to follow these instructions are likely to amount to misconduct or gross misconduct depending on the circumstances.

What is a reasonable instruction will probably depend on the circumstances of that employees employment and what they ordinarily do, but for the avoidance of doubt asking one of your employees to get breast implants like Doc Antle allegedly did, or asking one of your employees to kill your nemesis, like Joe allegedly did, are almost certainly not going to be reasonable instructions.

Recruitment

It is common knowledge for all organisations that you must avoid discriminating against people with protected characteristics when hiring new members of staff. Therefore, whilst watching Tiger King you would probably realise that Doc Antle's recruitment policy of only hiring young women is discriminatory, perhaps Doc is relying on the general occupational requirement exemption, but alas what this occupational requirement might be is never revealed by Doc.

Pay

All of the owners of the various zoos that you meet do not offer great terms and conditions to their staff members with Joe Exotic and Doc Antle paying between $100 and $150 a week.

These employees are generally working 16 - 18 hours a day, but I am sure considering how on top of these issues both Joe and Doc appear if their zoo was in the UK then all these staff would have 48 hour week opt out. However, even if they have taken this precaution these staff members are being paid below the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

Joe and Doc do offer their employees accommodation and Regulation 16 of the NMW Regulations do allow an accommodation allowance to be factored in when calculating an employees pay for NMW purposes, but this is currently capped at £8.20 a day so unfortunately Joe and Doc will still be paying their staff below the NMW.

Regulation 10 of the NMW Regulations contains benefits that are not used to calculate remuneration for NMW purposes and this includes benefits in kind, therefore unfortunately Joe providing his employees with out of date meat from the local supermarket will not count as remuneration for the purposes of NMW.

Whilst Carole Baskin's voluntary workforce may seem suspect, voluntary workers are excluded from the NMW if they work for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund-raising bodies and statutory bodies. It would seem likely that Big Cat Rescue are a charity and so technically the workers could be volunteers and not therefore entitled to the NMW.

Unfair Dismissal

Whilst watching Tiger King I was surprised that whilst there were many flagrant breaches of many aspects of employment law and many opportunities where an employee could have resigned and claimed constructive dismissal, however a few episodes in there was actually no evidence of someone being dismissed unfairly.

However, unsurprisingly it wasn't too long before we witnessed Joe dismissing a member of staff which was almost certainly unfair. For the avoidance of doubt dismissing an employee on the spot because you think it will make good television is not a potentially fair reason for dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Conclusion

Whilst it is very unlikely anyone is going to take practical tips from Joe Exotic or any of the other cadre of characters within the Tiger King there are some useful tips organisations can take away from the mistakes Joe made.

Therefore, if in doubt when watching the Tiger King and the way employees are treated if you just do the opposite of everything you see on screen, you will probably not go far wrong.

For more information contact James Barron in our Employment & HR department via email or phone on 0161 918 0017. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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