Breaking Bad: Disciplining employees for off-duty conduct

October 06, 2014 - by: Marilyn Moran 1 COMMENTS
Marilyn Moran

You can hardly get through your morning coffee these days without seeing another story about some athlete, model, or actor who abused his wife, trashed her Beverly Hills hotel room, or went all shutterstock_180348752Archie Bunker in a racist Twitter rampage. Usually, high-profile celebrities are bound by employment contracts that require strict adherence to an impeccable standard of personal conduct. But what can the average employer do if Walter White, the usually quiet and docile chemist with a spotless work history, decides to break bad over the weekend, uses his RV for a meth lab, and has his mug shot splashed all over the news? Like so many legal questions, the answer is “it depends.”

Generally, under the at-will doctrine, employees can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as the reason is not illegal. Unfortunately, deciphering whether a reason is “legal” or “illegal”  is not as clear as Walter’s blue crystal. Obviously, it is illegal to discipline or terminate an employee based on the employee’s race, religion, or sex, but most off-duty conduct lies somewhere in the gray area. Until recently, most employers did not give a second thought before disciplining an employee for off-duty criminal conduct, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has loudly condemned the practice. According to the EEOC, some racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to be arrested or convicted of criminal offenses than others, so the agency is critical of employment policies that universally disadvantage applicants or employees based on past criminal conduct.  As a result, the safest bet for disciplining employees for off-duty conduct is to focus on the job-related consequences of the behavior, rather than the behavior itself.

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If you don’t have anything nice to say…

March 10, 2014 - by: Brian Kurtz 0 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Lately, have you felt feverish, light-headed, even giddy? Well then you must have Oscar fever. The stars! The gowns! The teeth! My god, those blinding white teeth! For you, March 2, 2014, was a night of luxury, glamour, and take-out noodles because NO WAY you were cooking for the family and risk missing J-Law stumble over something walking down the red carpet. Adorbs!

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Offensive personal foul

November 06, 2013 - by: Brian Kurtz 0 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Suspended Miami Dolphins offensive lineman and last-guy-to-realize-people-save-voice-mails-and-texts Richie Incognito is 6’3″ and weighs 319 pounds. He is (was) a member of the Dolphins’ players leadership council, and he was a 2012 Pro Bowler. Incognito, however, may finally be facing an insurmountable opponent: the corporate employment lawyer. The Dolphins put Incognito on indefinite suspension after reportedly hearing a voice mail he left for teammate Jonathan Martin in April 2013. According to reports, the voice mail said:

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

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A horse with no claim

October 04, 2013 - by: Brian Kurtz 0 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Some colorful (ahem) corners of the Internet were abuzz this week after a report surfaced that an anonymous adult male fan of the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was fired from his job after admitting his fandom to his coworkers. The firing of this “brony” (and let’s just assume for the sake of this post the story is true) prompted questions about the limits of employee workplace protections. Did this man’s termination violate his right to free expression?  Answered simply, no. This episode is a useful reminder of the limits of constitutional protections in the private-sector workplace and the viability of at-will employment.  

The First Amendment guarantees that our rights to freedom of speech and expression are shielded from state action. Private sector employers, however, are not state actors. A 2007 federal district court decision unambiguously held that “the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution don’t extend to private-sector employees.” Simple, right? Well, maybe not always. Employers should be aware that some states have their own laws or provisions in their state constitutions that transpose First Amendment-like protections into private workplaces.

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