Ethics @ Work: Busybody bosses

More senior workers are being fired for private behavior.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
The business press has recently been reporting on a relatively new phenomenon: Businesses are increasingly willing to fire workers based on peccadilloes in their private life, even if these don't have demonstrated impact on their work. Some examples: The highly-successful CEO of broadcaster Home Box Office was pressured to resign after he was arrested for attacking his girlfriend; the CFO of health insurer WellPoint, who was deemed the industry's best CFO for four years in a row, was fired for extramarital romances. In a famous 2005 case, the CEO of aerospace giant Boeing was fired for having an affair with another executive, who did not report to him. At first I was disturbed by this phenomenon. I'm certainly not in favor of businesspeople, or any other kind of people, having extramarital affairs, but I'm just as strongly opposed to busybody bosses who feel they can dictate what dedicated employees do in their spare time. However, with a little research I discovered that in many of these cases there is a little more than meets the eye. The classic justification for this kind of firing is that scandals damage the company's image. But this justification can be questioned, because there is a bit of a vicious circle involved. Who asked the company to build their public image on the private behavior of employees? A similar vicious circle was conspicuous a generation ago with regard to homosexuals. Companies (or armed forces) would claim that they have nothing in particular against homosexual employees, but they discriminate because such employees expose the company to embarrassment or are in danger of being blackmailed due to their private-life romantic proclivities. The problem is that the discrimination was precisely what perpetuated the embarrassment. Today, homosexuals are in general not vulnerable to blackmail and not considered a liability to employers, so the business problem has in effect disappeared. In most of the recent cases, however, it was easy to find a legitimate business interest in the firing. It's certainly reasonable to worry that someone who would assault a close friend might act aggressively at work as well, and it turns out that the HBO executive has a reputation for past aggressive behavior towards employees. And extramarital affairs are not the same as same-sex ones; they involve a breach of a solemn agreement, the marriage vows. The WellPoint executive was evidently not having a simple extramarital affair; he was reportedly involved in multiple, parallel, and duplicitous relationships which could reasonably cast doubt on his integrity as well as his ability to continue to devote his full attention to his work. Other recent cases involved relationships between managers and subordinates, which are extremely problematic as they frequently involve conflicts of interest, suspicions of coercion, and lowered morale among coworkers who perceive favoritism in their working relationships. Another relevant point is the size of the company. In a small company, which generally has a smaller applicant pool and is in greater need of a close personal relationship among employees, there is more legitimacy to discriminate based on lifestyle. This distinction is found in law, which often exempts small firms from anti-discrimination statutes. Even when company interest in an employee's private affairs can be reasonably defended, there is still a need for equity and transparency. It bothered me that the WellPoint employee was officially discharged for violating the company's code of conduct. I scrutinized this code of conduct and couldn't find any clause which would predictably be construed to forbid his behavior, scandalous as it was. At the very least employees should be given fair warning when their jobs are on the line due to their private behavior. (I am not suggesting that the employees I mention were not disciplined or warned prior to being fired, and at least some of them certainly were.) To summarize, I acknowledge that employers are entitled to extensive control over what employees do on the job. Modest dress and modest behavior are reasonable demands and, in my opinion, contribute to productivity. But when sanctions extend to off-the-job behavior, many reservations are in order. First of all, there should be a legitimate and convincing case that such behavior really impacts the company's image or the employee's work performance. Substance addiction and aggressive or deceitful behavior are reasonable inclusions. Second of all, any policy on these matters should be transparent and consistent. It is certainly unfair to fire one employee due to indiscretions if the company turns a blind eye to other employees who engage in similar behavior. Finally, employees should always be given a second chance when it comes to off-the-job peccadilloes, unless the impact on work performance is clearly unavoidable. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology