A substantial minority of men are capable of boorish, sexist behaviour in public. A world in which all such men were unemployed would not be a better world.
Everyone by now has seen the video that led Hydro One to fire one of its employees. The government-owned electricity distribution company fired engineer Shawn Simoes after he and friends shouted vulgarities at a female news reporter during a live broadcast at a soccer match in Toronto.
This much is clear: what Simoes did was boorish, and offensive. The reporter who was the target of their abuse should not have to put up with that sort of thing — nor should any other woman. What’s less clear is whether his employer is ethically justified in firing him for it. And as much as I hate to say it, I think the answer is no. I’m not going to defend the man’s actions, which are indefensible. Drunkenness is a factor, but not a defence. But just as there is a difference between what is unethical and what is illegal, there is a difference between what is boorish and offensive and what you should be fired for.
Recall the case of Ray Rice, the NFL player who was caught on video knocking his fiancee unconscious. Nothing about this behaviour implied any lack of ability to do his job, indeed to do it very well. But Rice’s behaviour was good grounds for dismissal because, as a football player, he’s a brand ambassador and is supposed to be able to serve as a hero for kids. And his behaviour made him terrible at both. Or compare the case of Jian Ghomeshi, fired by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation after he was accused, by a number of women, of various forms of abuse and assault. This, too, was good grounds for dismissal. After all, in addition to being a brand ambassador, Ghomeshi needed to be able to work closely with female co-workers, something no one would reasonably trust him to do in the wake of such serious and credible allegations.
Simoes’ case is quite different. He wasn’t wearing a Hydro One t-shirt or anything identifying him with his employer. (The fact that he was a Hydro One employee apparently took considerable online sleuthing.) And it’s not clear that his boorish behaviour implies a threat to his female co-workers. Is there a pattern here? Perhaps his supervisor has insight into that.
Hydro One says Simoes violated the company’s code of conduct. But the relevant section of the company’s Code merely says “We treat employees and persons with whom we do business with dignity and respect. Hydro One does not tolerate harassment or discrimination.” It’s a stretch to think that that applies to all employees, all of the time, including when they’re off the job.
There are two key reasons to worry about the firing. One is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. The behaviour was very bad, yes, but not physically dangerous and it doesn’t imply an inability, on Simoes’ part, to do his job. Also, there’s reason to worry about the consequences. We don’t know whether Simoes has dependents, but what if he did? It’s bad enough, as a kid, to have a dad seen behaving like that. It’s even worse when Dad loses his job and can’t afford to support you anymore.
The other reason to worry about the firing is that the move implies that employers own you, and your behaviour, 24 hours a day. It implies that there’s no private sphere. After all, there are all kinds of things that you could do, off the job, that might displease your employer. Should they all be firing offences? What if you were filmed taking part in an illegal environmental protest? What if you were spotted smoking marijuana in the park? That’s illegal in many jurisdictions. What if you were spotted taking part in your local Gay Pride parade? That’s legal—in most places—but what if your employer is super-conservative? It’s simply not healthy for employers to be allowed to make those kinds of calls about off-the-job behaviour.
So I think Hydro One made the wrong call in firing Simoes. We should not tolerate sexual harassment, in public or at work. But unwillingness to tolerate it means we should be ready and willing to speak up against it, even to do so quite aggressively. It doesn’t mean that our employers should get to hand out punishments for behaviour that happens off the clock.