Fame produces ethical blind spots we must be aware of

Canadians were caught off-guard recently when Jian Ghomeshi, the popular host of Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s radio show “Q” was fired by the public broadcaster. This was not the traditional “he’s moving on to other projects” kind of departure, but a clear and abrupt severing of ties. The statement issued noted that “The CBC is saddened to announce its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi has come to an end.” Boom.

Just a day later, Ghomeshi fired back via Facebook, making clear that his departure was not amicable. Ghomeshi also revealed his version of what was at the heart of the matter: his sex life, and in particular his preference for rough sex. He said he was into BDSM, and asserted that those who shared his bedroom had participated in some rough play entirely consensually. He implied that his former employer, the CBC, was simply stuck up and couldn’t handle his edgy lifestyle. That same day, Ghomeshi’s lawyers filed a $55 million lawsuit against his former employer, for defamation, breach of confidence, and more. In the days since, a number of women have come forward to claim that they were subject to various kinds of abuse and assault by Ghomeshi—all of it decidedly non-consensual.

The case is ethically interesting—or is at least fodder for an interesting discussion—in a couple of different ways. Ghomeshi is of course just one case, and his firing was far from your run-of-the-mill dismissal. But the case helps us see a couple of different dimensions along which cases might vary.

One dimension has to do with, well, what in fact went on between Ghomeshi and the women involved. If—hypothetically, because the evidence really is mounting against him—Ghomeshi were telling the truth, then what happened was some “sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” And if that were the case—again, hypothetically—then the question would arise whether it is OK to sack an employee for participating in some sexual practices of which you (or your customers) might disapprove. The CBC is, by all accounts, a somewhat conservative organization (though Ghomeshi was part of the CBC’s attempt, over the last decade, to become more hip). But even a conservative organization needs to be careful about holding an employee’s off-the-job activities against him.

At the other end of the spectrum, if the worst case scenario is  true, then the CBC was faced with the prospect of an employee being potentially charged with multiple accounts of both common and sexual assault. Here we see shades of the Ray Rice case, and need to ask whether criminal acts are sufficient reason, ethically, to terminate an employee whose on-the-job performance has been otherwise satisfactory. Legally, of course, guys like Ghomeshi and Rice often have a “morals clause” written into their contracts—clauses that permit their employers to terminate them if they cause substantial embarrassment to the organization. But ethically, it’s not so clear: if someone does something illegal, the legal system has a million bits of due process that ensure that the investigation and trial are fair, and that the punishment fits the crime. Most employers are likely to be less thorough, and firing is a serious outcome. Ethically, firing isn’t always going to be OK.

(This is not the first time the CBC has fired an employee for behaviour that threatened to cast a bad light upon the organization. In 2003, a CBC reporter was fired for rubbing raw chicken and dirt onto some chocolates and mailing them to a critic. After a protracted legal battle, the reporter was eventually reinstated.)

This brings us to the second dimension of this case, which has to do with fame and responsibility. Ghomeshi is a famous broadcaster, a man once plausibly on-course for one day being declared a bona fide Canadian icon. His face is—or, rather, was—plastered all over the walls at the CBC’s headquarters. And as I suggested recently with regard to the Ray Rice scandal, cases involving famous men doing awful things don’t necessarily help us understand the ethical subtlety of the more general problem of whether to fire employees who do bad things off the job. Famous people evoke all sorts of odd and perhaps extreme moral judgments in us. “He’s famous and should have known better.” “He’s powerful and abused that power.” “He’s rich, so I hate him and he deserves what he gets.” And so on. And all of those intuitions may, of course, be entirely on-target with regard to Ghomeshi. But to the extent to which they are intuitions, rather than conclusions reached based on careful reasoning, we ought to be wary of them.

4 comments so far

  1. James Meacham on

    Chris, thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I think they are right on the money. There does seem to be some evidence mounting for the idea that some people have less respect for the rule of law than others and bona fide legal transgressions (and not matters of aesthetics, which is all that is involved with BDSM vs vanilla sex) might indicate that an employee might just have less interest in following rules and laws. I’m guessing you couldn’t have missed Kenneth Ahern’s recent paper on (among other things) the demography of insider trading (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2511068), in which he discovers that people involved in insider trading are 40% more likely to have had previous run-ins with the law than their neighbors. He concludes: “This supports the notion that illegal insider trading is consistent with other patterns of behavior. Though the greater prevalence of criminal records among inside traders could reflect that they are just more likely to get caught breaking the law than are their neighbors (whether speeding or illegal trading), it seems more likely that insiders have less respect for the rule of law and are more brazen in their illegal activities than their neighbors.” While this could certainly lead us down a very dodgy slippery slope to a “Minority Report”-like world where there are no opportunities for forgiveness or second chances, it does seem to point toward there being less risk involved when you hire people who don’t have legal lapses in their pasts.

  2. […] the decision faced by the NFL with regard to Ray Rice, and the decision faced by the CBC regarding Gian Ghomeshi.) […]

  3. Kostya on

    Interesting article. But I don’t get one thing, “so, what?”.
    One man had some sex “specifications” that are definitely outside moral and ethical norms. And was fired.
    If it would be generally accepted practice, there won’t be a story at all. Such actions are outside of normal course of businesses and happened exactly what should happen.
    Law proceedings – it’s more like consequences, a “lottery ticket.”

  4. […] 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 […]

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