Fired for being a jerk in public: does the punishment fit the crime?

It’s possible to believe a sexist buffoon should lose his job and still be concerned about employer overreach


Unidentified worker holding a Banker’s Box full of possessions

I wrote recently about why Hydro One was wrong to fire an employee over the crudely sexist way he and his friends treated a female journalist at a soccer game.

Lots of people disagreed with me, apparently sensing a kind of cosmic justice in a man losing his job over acting like a jackass in public. As I indicated in my previous entry on this case, I have no interest in defending this particular guy’s behaviour, which was sexist and boorish. But I’m disturbed by the glee with which so many people celebrated the fact that he lost his job—his source of income, his means of supporting his family—as a result of his drunken bad behaviour.

And while I think this case is unique in many ways, it is similar enough to other kinds of cases involving bad behaviour off-the-job that it warrants further discussion. Just why were so many people so sure that justice was served when Hydro One fired this guy?

We can think about this in terms of both the substance of the outcome, and the process or mechanism by which it came about.

First, let’s talk substance. Consider, if you will: of all the punishments (or more neutrally, all the bad outcomes) that could befall a sexist buffoon, which one do you think is most fitting? Here’s a short illustrative list:

  • Public ridicule?
  • Forced public apology?
  • Loss of employment?
  • Sensitivity training?
  • Divorce?
  • Expulsion from social clubs?
  • Banishment (along with his family) from the community?
  • Community service (perhaps at a women’s shelter)?
  • Incarceration?
  • A fine?

Which of these outcomes (or which combination of them) do you think fits the crime, here? And why is it that so many people think that loss of employment is the right answer to this very complex multiple-choice question? Yes, arguments in favour of the appropriateness of firing have been offered (e.g., an employer should worry that a man who is a sexist jerk in public will also be a sexist jerk at work). But I’ve yet to see a really robust version of that argument, let alone an explanation of why firing makes more sense, ethically, that this punishment alone is the right one, ethically, than all those other outcomes, or—for those who believe this is true—why he deserves everything on the menu.

(Nerdy footnote: if you want to get technical, which of the various extant theories of punishment are you relying on if you think that firing was the right outcome? Deterrence? If so, what evidence do you have that people like that are deterred by punishments of that kind? Retribution? If so, what makes loss of employing the right way to “get back at” this guy? And so on.)

So was firing him the right result, or just the one that was most readily available?

Next, let’s talk process. Let’s talk about the mechanism by which justice was meted out to the employee in question. And let us assume now, just for the sake of argument, that losing his job does seem like an appropriate and proportionate punishment for acting like a jerk (or, perhaps, for being one). The very substantial question that remains is who has the right to decide to enact that penalty? Who do we think, generally, should have the moral right to carry out such punishments?

Not to be too dramatic, but compare this to the death penalty. There are a lot of people who are opposed to the death penalty not because they think no one ever deserves to die for their crimes, but because they think the government shouldn’t have the power to hand out such a punishment, even when that punishment is justified. It is not inconsistent—in fact, it is wholly reasonable—to say that some people (people guilty of multiple child murders for example) absolutely “deserve to die,” but at the same time to say that the state shouldn’t be trusted with the discretion to hand out that sentence.

Now, back to the incident at hand. It is entirely reasonable to believe a) that someone who is a sexist buffoon in public deserves to lose his job, and b) that employers should not be encouraged to take it upon themselves to impose such a penalty in such circumstances. We risk handing to corporations a very potent weapon if we arm them with the moral license to pass judgment on our off-the-job behaviour. And nor is the burden of such a license a burden that corporations should be too eager to bear.


Chris MacDonald is founding director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Highlights. Follow him at @ethicsblogger.

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