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

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 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, 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.

7 comments so far

  1. flocci on

    I feel as though you are setting up a bit of a straw man here. Although there are lots of people calling his firing “justice”, I suspect that most mean it in an emotional/schadenfreude/karmic kind of way. They don’t actually think Hydro One fired this person to extract “Justice” for his victim, or even that it is Hydro One’s responsibility to do that. Hydro One did not fire him to punish him for his behaviour, but to protect itself and its employees. Any justice that people interpret from his firing is a side effect, not a primary motivator.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Thanks for your comment. I agree: HyrdoOne didn’t fire him TO exact justice, but many people think that it is just that they did fire him. I want people to ask why they think it’s fair. I understand what they’re trying to protect; the question is whether the method of doing so is fair.

      • flocci on

        Assuming that by “just” you mean “ethically justified”, I will attempt to defend the just-ness of the firing like this. Consider the following scenario: You are hiring a new employee for a job, there is a collection of acceptable candidates. However one candidate was involved in a similar confrontation. Would it unethical to exclude that candidate from consideration? I would say no. In fact, I think it would be unethical to hire that candidate. As the employer I have an ethical responsibility to take reasonable precautions to protect my employees from harm. Hiring a candidate with a known history of discriminatory behaviour over one without, increases the risk of harm to my employees.

        I don’t see how firing an existing employee for that behaviour during employment (and hiring a replacement) is ethically different. One person loses his livelihood, another gains one.

        One more note, on re-reading the post, I think I need to question the claim in your title. This person was not fired for being a jerk. There are lots of “jerky” behaviours that would not have justified a firing, even if they took place in the workplace. This guy was fired for making derogatory and discriminatory remarks. If the reporter had been a person of colour and the individual made a series of racist remarks, would you still feel comfortable classifying him a “jerk”? What if the reporter was Jewish and anti-semetic remarks we made? I think that we, as a society, are still more forgiving of sexist behaviour that we are of other forms of discrimination, and I think that is a problem.

  2. Stacia on

    I am a Drury student who is currently taking an ethics and communication course. I have taken interest in your blog post because of the nature in which it correlates with our course topics. To be more specific, the legalistic perspective states that illegal human communication behavior is unethical. This perspective has the advantage of allowing simple ethical/unethical decisions to impact the outcome of individual behavior. In my experience, unethical behavior that is made public not only impacts the individual but it could also tarnish the organizational image for which they work. Examples of this can be found in all types of organizations from businesses to athletic teams. Regarding the punishment of the employee in question you stated, “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?” It is my opinion that as an employee of an organization it is the responsibility of an employee to understand that their actions will impact their organization. Due to this, an employee must also assume responsibility for the outcome of their behavior, should it be deemed unethical by their organization of employment. Any organization must consider the behavior of their employees as a reflection onto the company in the eyes of the public. This employee was not terminated based on their personal beliefs; they were terminated based on how their actions impacted the organization that they were employed by. Freedom of speech does allow an individual the right to their own opinions and to voice them, however the manner in which this is done may impact the organization that the individual is employed by. Kathy Fitzpatrick, a scholar of public relations asks the question, “to what degree can or should we enforce ethical standards for communication”? If organizations do not hold employees to ethical standards in actions or communication, do you think there would be a difference in how business is conducted? If I were a customer looking at two companies to take my business too; I am going to choose a company that can uphold an ethical standard rather than a company who lets employees publicly voice their sexist comments. Do you think that the decision by Hydro One was unethical?

  3. […] also: Fired for being a jerk in public: does the punishment fit the crime? Should Rioters be […]

  4. […] written a few times about people being fired for their off-the-job behaviour (See: Fired for Being a Jerk in Public and Should Rioters be Fired? and Hydro One Was Wrong to Fire Hooligan Employee). In particular, […]

  5. […] written a few times about people being fired for their off-the-job behaviour (See: Fired for Being a Jerk in Public and Should Rioters be Fired? and Hydro One Was Wrong to Fire Hooligan Employee). In […]

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