Breaking Bad: Disciplining employees for off-duty conduct

October 06, 2014 1 COMMENTS

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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