• SETHICS 31.08.2015

    To paraphrase Bill Maher, some of the alleged offenders described in the following argument may not be worth defending, but their rights are. Let me first state my contrary bias. On the spectrum of government control and anarchy, I am in favour of laws restricting behaviours that explicitly harm others, and where laws are not appropriate (such as in the case of free speech), I like to see jerks get their social comeuppance as much as the next karma connoisseur. However, I am wary of the current state of moral fervor dominating public discussions wherein those accused of committing crimes legal or otherwise are not only publicly shamed, but are also called to be fired or reprimanded by their employers, even where their alleged fouls have not been proven and/or have dubious relevance to their work. For instances:

    (1) A common jerk made profane remarks to a reporter while she was in the midst of a live feed. She called him out. He defended himself. The resulting video found an audience. Someone figured out where the jerk worked and alerted his boss. The jerk was fired from his five-figure job.

    (2) An NFL player was charged by the police with a hit and run, DUI, and vandalism. The next day, the athlete was released by his team.

    (3) A CFL player (known already for ignorant opinions) shared on Twitter a link to a Holocaust-denying video. The player was fined by the CFL.

    (4) A British Lord was photographed socializing with prostitutes and was consequently pressured to resign his position. He resisted at first, but eventually relented to public and fellow-Lord pressure. (Although there was, apparently, no legal basis for him to be removed.)

    (5) NFL superstar Ray Rice was seen on a hotel security video in an altercation with his fiancé: as she approached him in an elevator at a rapid pace, he punched her in the face, knocking her unconscious. Rice pled out of a criminal conviction by agreeing to 12 months of counselling. Initially he was suspended for two games, but after public pressure, he was released by his team, the Baltimore Ravens, and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

    Now, if employers fire their employees because they have good reason to believe they might harm their co-workers on the job, or already have done so, I have no objection. My concern here is with cases where employees are relieved of duty because their bosses have deemed them morally unfit for work (usually at the behest of popular opinion).

    While I too will not type a sad-face emoticon for the fool who lost his job after verbally accosting someone trying to do theirs, I am nervous about the lack of public resistance to employers extending their gaze beyond their employees’ on-site activities with the aim of pronouncing judgment on their off-site behaviours. As we presently stand, the general assumption seems to be that, where someone is accused and/or convicted of a crime outside the job or of saying or doing something politically unwise, our society is right to pressure the accused’s employer to fire that person.

    That, to me, is a scary state of employment affairs. I suspect most of us wouldn’t want our doctors or bus drivers to refuse service because of such character flaws, so why are we so quick to allow vigilante karma officers to run our human resources departments? And now that we’ve opened up Pandora’s judgement, how far might the employers take their newfound lease on pink slips?

    (“Nicely done, Johnson. You’re doing a better job of recycling your newspapers and respecting your elders, but I think you could donate more money to UNICEF, and I’d like to see you spend more time with your kids and less time coveting your neighbour’s wife. Have those things done by the end of next month, and I’ll consider keeping you on… Oh, and by the way, in this election, I’m voting blue. See that you do as well.”)

    Who’s going to be in charge of defining these moral no-go zones? We can all agree that punching someone in the face (unless in opposition to an attacker) is morally egregious, but what about less morally obvious codes, such as religious doctrines? If enough people in the public are opposed to gay marriage, is it okay for a company to fire a married gay person on moral grounds?

    Unfortunately, there is little public appetite today for employers to make a nuanced case for why they are not in a position to evaluate their employees’ outside-of-work conduct and speech: public morality, after all, is not known for its ability to recognize such distinctions. To the no-nuanced public, if an employer does not punish their employees when they are accused of a crime or of saying something deemed offensive, they clearly condone such behaviour.

    This puts employers in a dicey spot where they either condemn their employee for something beyond their expertise and jurisdiction, or risk the wrath of their customers. Given such a choice, many employers are relenting to the public’s demands for their employees’ excommunication.

    Thus, I think the potential for injustice caused by our guilty-until-proven-innocent and readily-offended public morality is dangerous, and we need to recalibrate our expectations of employers when it comes to assessing their employees’ outside-of-work activities. I submit that the starting point in these discussions ought to be that employers do not have a right or obligation to punish their employees for anything that happens outside their jurisdiction. Instead, companies should be expected to prove that they have just cause (i.e. something relevantly injurious to the company’s functioning, such as a conflict of interest, or a conflict of safety) to fire an employee. If pundits and other public moralists (and even our legal system) were to accept this as a first principle of employer-employee relations, employers would, I submit, feel less pressure to make unjust terminations to appease public wrath.

    With that “don’t fire employees without workplace cause” frame of reference in mind, I think the most complicated scenario for employers and critics to consider is the case where an employee (usually possessing a high profile) commits a moral infraction that could hurt the brand of their company.

    Consider the NFL’s indefinite suspension of Ray Rice for punching his wife. The claim was not that Rice’s violent behaviour made him unsafe for his workplace, but instead that his actions were so despicable that the NFL needed to send a message of condemnation of violence against women, or be seen as a league aiding and abetting men who beat up women.

    I can understand the mathematics of such a brand-protection argument. Given that entertainment, much like politics, draws crowds as much by personality as it does by talent, if an athlete’s reputation for violence leads some of us to think badly of their employer’s brand, then in a sense their performance could be questioned.

    Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that the needs of the brand should outweigh the rights of its workers. I see two categories of circumstance to consider:

    (1) First there are disputed cases, such as when someone is charged with, but hasn’t yet been proven guilty of, a crime. In spite of the suspect’s right to a fair trial, their employer may feel the perception of their guilt is already tainting their good brand name. Sadly, though, mob opinion is rarely a meticulous means by which to assess a person’s guilt, and so employers using it as their lead moral advisor will surely sometimes fire innocent employees.

    Therefore, as painful as it may be to see an allegedly violent offender roaming the field of our favourite sports team, I see no solution other than to allow the justice system to be in charge of taking away the criminals it deems unfit for society. And, if the courts do not put a perceived villain in prison, I think it is oppressive to allow companies, at the behest of popular opinion and brand protection, to make like kangaroos and presume their employees’ guilt.

    (2) Second, there are the cases where the problematic actions of the high-profile employee are not in dispute, such as when the celebrity has been either convicted of a crime, or captured on an uncontested video saying or doing something that a company would not want associated with their brand. Again, from a fiduciary point of view, it is understandable that organizations would want to exile high-profile employees who have behaved in ways that the public condemns.

    Nevertheless, I still fear that such brand-harming justification gives too much power to our sometimes puritanical public opinion to rule our lives outside of work. Again, I can imagine exceptions, such as when an employee’s personal reputation is the primary basis for their employment (as in the case of a celebrity spokesperson), but in situations where one’s personal life is irrelevant to the actual tasks one is paid for (as when one carries a football for a living), I propose that we reconsider the notion that it is appropriate for employers to require their employees to stay on brand while they are off duty. This isn’t to say that employees should be allowed to directly insult their workplaces while at an outside-of-work microphone (that strikes me as a conflict of interest), but, beyond such exceptions, I do not think that employers should be allowed to limit their employee’s freedom of association and speech.

    For concerning instance, whether one believes that feminism is a force for equality or a force for sexism, it’s hard to deny that it currently has a controlling influence on our public morality. Consider the difference in our understandable contempt for Ray Rice’s assault on his wife, and our lack thereof when confronted by a parallel incident in which another NFL football player, IK Enemkpali, punched a teammate, Geno Smith, breaking his jaw to the point of knocking his compatriot out of action for 6-10 weeks. Given this happened in the locker room in front of witnesses, the team rightly fired the fist-throwing athlete, but note that there was little if any of the public moral scorn that Ray Rice received for his similar assault on his fiancé. In fact, some observers have even blamed the victim, Smith, stating he was acting aggressively towards Enemkpali and provoked the violent reaction. (Recall that Rice’s fiancé was behaving aggressively towards him, too: but not many would want to defend Mr. Rice on those same grounds.)

    Moreover, in response to the Enenkpali assault, SportsCentre featured for our entertainment the “Top Ten Teammate Fights.” (Again, can you imagine a “Top Ten” segment serenading Rice’s crime?) Then, within a couple days, a second team hired the offending player on the grounds that his punch was a one-time error. I don’t object to this decision; if the new team thinks Enemkpali can improve their results and doesn’t think there’s a pattern of violent work behaviour that would pose a risk to his new teammates, I think it’s reasonable for them to take him on. But the fact that the team was able to do this without the same moral condemnation that has left Ray Rice still without an employer is evidence of our current feminist-leaning moral infrastructure. (Consider also an incident in the NHL wherein super-villain Milan Lucic followed an opponent—-who didn’t have the puck—-during an NHL game and, just for vicious fun, whacked him between the legs: Lucic was not suspended but fined $5000 of his $6 million salary, and I suppose, probably suffered the indignity of making a sports station or two’s “Top Ten Ooooh Moments.”)

    If it were just violent abusers of women who suffered under this feminist double standard, I wouldn’t be particularly troubled. However, as our Western culture becomes increasingly submissive to the uncompromising expectations of feminism, buoyed advocates are demanding (and sometimes receiving) firings for not only violent offences against women, but also failures to be feminist in thought.

    Recall General Lawson, who “offended” all three major Canadian political parties for suggesting that biological wiring was complicit in creating sexual harassers in the military. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau called for him to be fired for this innocuous, if unsupported, claim.

    More troubling, consider the career crucifixion of Nobel Laureate and medical researcher Dr. Tim Hunt who, at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Korea, made a joke that was clearly intended to satirize himself as a fossil of gender relations in science:

    “It’s strange,” he said, “that a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should separate labs for boys and girls.”

    For those not tuned into his humour frequency, he followed up this jest with a clarifying remark:

    “No seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development in Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science despite the obstacles and despite monsters like me.”

    After the most controversial aspects of the joke were released to the Twitter mafia (without any of the clarifying content that surrounded it), Hunt was forced to resign from all of his scientific positions. No matter how offended one may be by a joke, we should all be worried to see a world-class medical researcher cut off from helping us all because of things he said while giving a toast. I don’t begrudge criticism of what people say in public, but are we sure such controversial humour disqualifies Hunt from being a good scientist? If Dr. Hunt had harassed or bullied his colleagues (female or male) in some way, then the benefits of his good science may not be worth the harm to his co-workers and subordinates; however, many female supporters have come forward to say that Dr. Hunt has long been a champion of their work.

    (And, once again, you don’t need to search far into the internet to find examples where feminist scholars have said much more earnest and sexist comments without any official discipline. For just one recent example, consider the Gender and Diversity Professor at the Sauder School of Business, Jennifer Berdahl, who speculated in her blog that former UBC President Arvind Gupta had left his post after only one year because “he lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” She was not officially disciplined for such masculinity-deriding commentary; admittedly, she says that some higher powers that be have criticized her for it, but the result so far has not been any official censure for her sexist choice of words. To the contrary: the Faculty Association has demanded that her lead critic, John Montalbano, a faculty advisory board member at the Sauder School of Business, and the person who funded Berdahl’s position, resign his commission for using his station to criticize a faculty member.)

    Whether or not you agree that our society is currently driving under the influence of feminism and other specialized moralities, surely all of us should be concerned when fellow citizens, who are legally entitled to work, are barred from doing so because of perceived or real moral errors outside of work. While Ray Rice may be a terrible person and certainly did something awful, allowing his employer to fire him for a crime he committed outside the borders of their institution solidifies a precedent that should make us all raise our eyebrows. More crucially, while I too prefer respectful discourse, when employers can decide to fire their employees because they find their outside-of-work words “unacceptable,” that scares the moral fervor out of me.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 9:42 AM

  • 9 Responses

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    • v Says:

      This is why we still need unions to defend the rights of employees.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks V. Nicely played. As you know, unions have been known to irritate me. But, when things like this happen, I find myself seeing their importance, too. Now if they could just be a little less greedy, we might be onto something. 😉

    • Tom Says:

      I wonder why there is no comment section after this blog. It actually has a strange aura of being from someone else, although the style seems clearly to come from Seth himself. In any case, the points made here are interesting and relevant. It reminds me of the moral furor over Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades, as though what happens in the bedroom, or in the Oval Office, has anything whatever to do with performance of the duties of office. It does seem that privacy is a thing of that past and that morality, as you so aptly suggest, is a matter of “brand” rather than actuality. As for the gentleman who struck his wife, who knows what provoked this or what preceded it. Women, children, dogs, and even men are routinely roughed up in our violence-loving society. It’s only when some event hits the Twitterverse that the rest of us can enjoy moral outrage and a sense of superiority.
      Tom

    • Tom Says:

      Yes. If only unions could be less greedy, like the noble corporate employers.
      T

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tom. To your second point, yes I’m sure the management side of the general union-management divide have their share of greedy explaining to do, as well. I only meant to hint that, while I see benefits to unions (per V’s comment and this blog post), they are not always advocacy angels either (cough.. BCTF) so we must treat them as fallible as well.

      To your first point, I agree: the Bill Clinton fiasco is another example of the puritanical public (and politicians trying to pander to them) believing it was their job to evaluate Clinton’s marital shortcomings. And, as you say, the Twitterification of these discussions allows every tangential public opinion to pile up and put more pressure on employers to do the wrong thing.

      P.S. Sorry the comment section was hidden, but I see you’ve found it. (For future reference, if you click on the title of any of my posts, the comments section should spring forth at the bottom.)

    • Tom2 Says:

      Perhaps the kind of vigilante justice that are highlighted by your examples are a misuse of power. However, when you look at the power wielded inappropriately and in many cases harmfully by both big business and big unions, I find that the behavior of the employers in question to be very ‘small potatoes’ compared with that of these big players.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tom2. I’m sure you’re right that big business and big unions have larger crimes to answer for, but I think if we don’t pay attention to how we treat individuals as well, we could find ourselves in an increasingly puritanical state of individual affairs.

    • Janice Fiamengo Says:

      Thanks for this, Seth: very well argued and with excellent supporting evidence. I remember reading (bad memory, sorry) about an organization in the United States with over 40,000 members, funded by a progressivist think tank or grassroots organization (it might have been a Soros organization, does anyone else remember?) that exists solely to ferret out objectionable comments made on Facebook (mostly relating to race, I believe), then find the person’s employer and pressure the employer into firing the employee rather than risk the wrath of this well-organized and large lobby group. Sorry, I can’t remember the details. But it certainly seems that not only relatively high-profile gaffs, misdemeanors and wrong acts are likely to get someone fired but even rather insignificant (private) verbal offences on Facebook and other social media. I find it horrifying in just the way you describe. Where will it end?

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Janice. That does indeed sounds terrifying. I haven’t heard of that organization, but your description scares more moral fervour out of me.

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