Was it right to fire an employee for giving President Trump the finger?

Firing employees for their off-hours conduct poses some tricky ethical problems. Do we really want employers making these kinds of decisions?

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A woman later identified as Juli Briskman gestures at President Donald Trump’s motorcade on October 28, 2017

A woman later identified as Juli Briskman gestures at President Donald Trump’s motorcade on October 28, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Is she defiantly hero, or a disrespectfully flippant? The woman who flipped off Trump has lost her job. Did her employer act ethically?

Juli Briskman—irked that the president was golfing when he ought to be focusing on more important matters—raised her middle finger at Donald Trump’s motorcade as it zipped past her on her bicycle near Trump National Golf Club last month. And for that, she was fired.

I’ve written a few times about people being fired for their off-the-job behaviour (See: Fired for Being a Jerk in Public and Should Rioters be Fired? and Hydro One Was Wrong to Fire Hooligan Employee). In particular, I’ve argued that while it is often satisfying to see some idiot fired over their bad behaviour, we should be cautious about endorsing such moves by employers. For one thing, we should be cautious about endorsing the intrusion of our employers into our private (or at least, non-work) lives. For another thing, there are too few checks on employers’ power: when people are fired for off-duty behaviour, there’s a chance that this sort of punishment will be capricious, and disproportionate. It is, in short, a rather rough sort of justice.

Ms Briskman’s employer is—or rather was—Akima L.L.C., a holding company that “oversees government contractors.” Now, one of the sometimes-legitimate reasons for firing an employee over their off-the-job behaviour is when the employee’s behaviour stands to damage the company’s legitimate business interests. And when you’re a company whose business relies on government contracts, having an employee publicly insult the president is a serious concern. So while those of us who agree with Briskman’s sentiment may regret the loss of her job, we should hardly be surprised, and perhaps not offended, at her employer’s actions.

But this case serves a useful purpose in highlighting the role of critical thinking in ethical decision making, because I sense a lot of people out there had a very different reaction to this case than they did to some of the previous high-profile cases of employers firing employees for high-profile off-duty shenanigans. If your moral reaction to this one is different from the last one, you need to think about why. Are you being inconsistent, or is there actually some unspoken principle according to which the rightness of the employer’s action is determined? Is that unspoken principle something other than your own political leanings?

A good test of your moral intuitions is generally to put the shoe on the other foot. In particular, when you applaud the exercise of autonomous judgment or freedom by some individual, group, or company, ask whether you would still applaud it if the individual, group, or company had values different from your own.

Applying that to the question of firing employees for their “bad” behaviour off the job: If you think you are in favour of an employer feeling free to fire an employee for behaviour that you think despicable, ask whether you would like employers to follow the same standard when the behaviour in question is one with which you’re sympathetic. If not, then you should probably have second thoughts about the previous cases in which you endorsed rough justice being handed out by employers.

Chris MacDonald teaches ethics and critical thinking at theTed Rogers School of Management, where he is director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, and is founding co-editor of Business Ethics Highlights.


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