What are an employer’s ethical obligations when an employee gets caught doing something bad off the clock? The example of the day, of course, is Ray Rice. As the entire universe now knows, Rice the football player who was caught on video savagely hitting his then-fiancée (now wife), knocking her unconscious. The incident, once it became public, left the his team (the Baltimore Ravens) and the National Football League with the question of what to do about it, and what to do about Rice.
Rice’s case apparently posed something of a dilemma for the court system, too: back in May, Rice was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault, but those charges were later dropped.
Consider also the case of Centreplate CEO Des Hague, who was caught on video viciously kicking a friend’s dog in an elevator. Hague was first suspended, and then eventually terminated in the wake of a public uproar.
Interestingly, in both cases the offences took place away from work. Neither offence was an offence against the employer, at least not directly. Yet it was widely believed that Rice and Hague’s employers needed to do something, something beyond whatever legal sanctions might apply.
Of course, in those two cases, the employers’ hands were forced by enormous public pressure. Bowing to such pressure is perhaps most understandable in the case of the NFL’s (eventual) response to the Rice case. Football players are exceedingly public figures, and many people see them as actual or potential role models for kids. Rice is a crummy role model, to say the least, and is therefore a public relations nightmare for the NFL. The same reasoning applies to athletes losing endorsement contracts: it’s no surprise at all that Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Vick lost major endorsement contracts after their respective scandals. Advertisers are buying the athlete’s image and reputation. And when those are devalued, the athlete no longer has any value as a spokesman.
Legally, in Canada and the U.S., at least, employers don’t need to give much reason for firing an employee. But what about ethically? Is bad behaviour (or even criminal behaviour) away from work a good enough reason to sack someone?
There are a few circumstances in which an employer is clearly ethically justified in taking action. First, if the bad behaviour suggests that the employee is liable to act badly on the job in a way that is going to pose a risk to customers, to fellow employees, or to the general public. This might have been the case with Hague. Although we don’t have much evidence, the dog-kicking incident might suggest a man with a temper. What if he’s inclined to treat subordinates the way he treats helpless animals?
Second, an employer is likely to be ethically justified in acting if the bad behaviour directly implicates on-the-job performance. Consider, for example, an airline pilot caught buying cocaine. A coke-head pilot simply can’t be tolerated.
Third, if the bad behaviour in question suggests such poor judgment that the employee simply could no longer be trusted, then an employer might well be right to let him or her go. Some bad behaviour might just imply that the employee is a loose cannon. People are generally hired not just for their talent, but also for their judgment. No judgment means no job.
But what about beyond that? What about the sales clerk spotted smoking pot in the park? That’s technically illegal in most jurisdictions, but does the employer have any business firing her for it? Or what about the salesman who is known to have been arrested for hitting his wife, tried, convicted, and released after a minimal jail term? Should his employer fire him, or consider him already to have been punished? Certainly, domestic violence might make us worry about how he would treat female colleagues. But what if, for whatever reason, that’s not an issue? Is merely having done something bad in one’s personal life any of an employer’s business?
In some cases, such a wrongdoer would simply be impossible to work with, or impossible to have managing a team of employees. If the wrongdoing is widely known within the organization, reputation alone might be enough to make the employee a liability.
But it’s also worth considering that an employer who fires an employee simply based on the wrongdoing itself is effectively imposing a penalty — acting like judge, jury, and executioner — without any of the due-process protections that accompany a criminal trial. It also implies a kind of double jeopardy: being tried and possibly convicted twice for the same crime.
Further, it arguably represents an intrusion of the world of employment into our personal lives. Just maybe we want to keep those spheres separate, not to protect the wife beater but to protect the rest of us from nosy and self-righteous bosses.
There’s a saying in legal circles that “hard cases make bad law.” In other words, our judgments about extreme or unusual cases can induce us to generalize in unhelpful ways. I think that applies quite nicely to our ethical judgment about Ray Rice and Des Hague. Rice and Hague are both wealthy, powerful men who did things that most of us find unthinkable. Before we leap to the conclusion that hell yes they should lose their jobs, we ought at least to think through what that conclusion would imply for a few million lesser offences.