Employers to Employees: Your Life is Not Your Own

Discussion
Jun 13, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

As a report in USA Today makes clear, what employees do on their own time is very much their bosses’ business.

Lewis Maltby of The National Workrights Institute said, “The shock is that there’s no legal protection. You can get fired just for having a bumper sticker the boss doesn’t like.”

In one case, it is alleged, that is exactly what happened.

Lynne Gobbell, who worked packing insulation for a company in Moulton, Ala. was reportedly fired by her employer (evidently a supporter of the Bush-Cheney ticket) for displaying a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car.

In another case, an employee of a beer distributor claims he was fired for drinking a competitive product while off the job. His former employer disputes the claim, saying he was terminated for making negative comments about the company while drinking and wearing a company uniform in a bar. This case, reports USA Today, is expected to go trial for resolution.

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14 Comments on "Employers to Employees: Your Life is Not Your Own"


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Tillman Estes
Guest
Tillman Estes
15 years 8 months ago
The United States, as a whole, has much to learn with regards to the balance of work and life. The ultimate intrusion of the workplace into our personal lives is unacceptable. As employees of companies of any size, we have a responsibility to fulfill our work obligations to the fullest extent… while on the clock. The laws of our country protect minorities of any type (age, gender, religion, ethic origins, etc.) in the workplace. What these employers as described in the article are enforcing is the company “brand.” Sweatshops and the Company Store closed years ago, and for a good reason. It may be in the employee’s best interest to support the brand, as our ever increasing competitive global economy continues to turn away from innovation and towards stealing the customers from similar companies. If the employees work against the company, the company as we know it may cease to exist. We read where GM will lay off 25,000 workers (23% of the US hourly workforce) and must acknowledge the frailty of a job in… Read more »
Bob Bridwell
Guest
Bob Bridwell
15 years 8 months ago

Most employees do not realize that employment in many, if not most, states is at-will; meaning the employer can fire the employee at-will for any reason as long as the employee is not in a protected class and the firing is not “illegal” under the law.

Like several others, if these were the only reasons for termination, I would be surprised. As a former employer, if an employee was contributing to the success of the enterprise, I couldn’t care less who they supported politically. I operated a small chain of grocery stores and we had employees who did not do 100% of their shopping with us. But these employees had families and friends, so why take the risk of losing dozens of customers because of the disloyalty? There had to be underlying reasons.

Mike Jamerson
Guest
Mike Jamerson
15 years 8 months ago
The answer is, of course, it depends. It depends mostly on your level in the corporation and your position. For some levels, you are expected to represent the company off the clock in social settings, dinners, marketing events over the weekend, etc. And the expectations are different. For a factory worker or truck driver I would say the case is different and, if when they punch out, their time is their own. And if they volunteer at Planned Parenthood, they shouldn’t feel they have to sneak and hide it from their pro-life supervisor. I believe protection is needed because we as a people in the U.S have become so politicized and polarized based on issues and religion. So many people on the right feel it is their obligation to surround themselves with like-thinking people and that a person who shares their values is more qualified. Same for those on the left who think those on the right are not thoughtful and intelligent. That is wrong. I heard people say after the O.J. Simpson case that… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 8 months ago

While courting and being married to my first wife, we’d visit her parents in a small Kansas town. Her father would always hand me a few bills and ask me to go buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Red at the local liquor store. He was a very popular teacher at the local high school and had been so for many years, yet still couldn’t afford to be seen in a liquor store.

That sounds silly to most of us, but this sort of unwritten employment “contract” still exists today in businesses of all kinds. Sometimes it’s covert, but often it’s very plain — like the genius beer truck driver sitting in a bar wearing his company’s uniform while drinking the competitor’s brew. These unwritten rules will always be with us, and the alert employee will make it their business to become aware of them.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

In an ideal world, common sense would prevail and there would be no need for either laws or lawsuits. On the other hand, I am seeing those flying pink creatures again as I write which is why I reluctantly answered “yes”.

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 8 months ago

David and Yottadog got it right: employees-at-will are employed at the will of both parties. You don’t need a reason to fire them (protected classes aside). I agree with David that it is unlikely these people were given a reason, and they are assuming it was for the reasons stated.

Let’s be careful about the “rights” we ask for! The presumption should be that two people are allowed to conduct business however they see fit. If I don’t like you, I don’t have to work with you. If you don’t like me, same thing goes. When we start trying to create “rights” where none existed before, we need to be very, very careful.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 8 months ago
After reading all of the comments so far, it’s easy to determine that this really isn’t quite a black and white issue – there is a lot of grey in this one. Sure, not all employees do the right thing, yet to be even more sure, employers don’t either. It is especially true that, since people are human, they are going to make some really big mistakes in judgment. Thus, you see references to ‘common sense’ throughout the comments preceding mine. As, with Voltaire and other more modern philosophers, we’re reminded that ‘common sense is not so common.’ Neither side in this issue has cornered the market on stupidity. The question is, how do you legislate to protect against the lack of common sense or just plain stupidity by either party? In both cases, the actions were taunting and the responses were less than tolerant. So go figure. The problem is that, over time, since the 80’s or so, the line between work and privacy has become more and more blurred. Whether it was flexibility,… Read more »
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
15 years 8 months ago
Legislation may be needed, but what’s really needed is some better HR practices between companies and employees that clearly state what expectations are in writing, in employee handbooks and in “on boarding”… what are the do’s and don’ts of the corporate culture? What will or won’t be tolerated? Then the prospective employees can decide for themselves if this is a company they want to work for. If we are truly going to embrace diversity in the workplace and allow people to show their strengths by being themselves…if we are going to build teams by expecting people to be more “vulnerable” and “transparent” as some management philosophies would espouse… then we can’t ask employees to be clones. At the same time, there is something called a “brand” and a “corporate culture” and an employer should have the right to define what that is and what the rules are for living within the brand framework and being true to the corporate culture. It’s not an easy balancing act and it requires great clarity. If legislation is going… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
15 years 8 months ago
I doubt that these people were fired for such idiotic things like a bumper sticker or drinking a competitor’s beer. It would be a poor business decision to terminate an employee for such a minor offence unless other issues are involved. If an employee is directly contributing to the bottom line and liked by management, these things are overlooked. Most likely, the bumper sticker or the drinking of the beer was just the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Unless an employee has a contract, employers are wise to never give a reason for termination. It only opens them up to more problems. Being an employee is like being a guest in someone’s home. Be respectful or you won’t get invited back. I used to work for a company whose new CEO was a Democrat sympathizer and I had portrait of President Nixon on my wall. Some of my supervisors pleaded with me to take it down. I knew it bothered some people and did it anyway. Since I anticipated my firing, I left it… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 8 months ago

Neither employees nor employers have a monopoly on stupidity in cases like this. What ever happened to common sense? Any employee who uses very poor judgment and causes his employer embarrassment either on or off the job should be subject to discipline up to and including discharge, in my opinion. But that shouldn’t give the employer the right to over-react and emotionally fire employees that made a simple mistake and meant no harm. Aren’t these the types of things that caused the formation of labor unions to protect the employees?

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 8 months ago

The challenge lies in developing guidelines as to what represents harmful behavior. The driver should be allowed to drink whatever he likes when he is off duty. However, if he was in uniform, with a client (the bar) and talking about his company, he should be fired, as he was clearly representing his company.

Now I have socialized with many people who work for a brewery. My experience is that they won’t drink wine or other alcoholic beverages in public (for the most part), they will not drink the last half-inch of beer (so there is always product on the table), and they will make sure the bottle is turned with the label facing toward the greatest number of people. Clearly, these people worked for a company to whom they felt great loyalty.

There have, however, been a number of cases regarding bumper stickers, blogging, etc. Unless they are revealing company secrets or clearly doing harm, this is, in my opinion, entirely off limits.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

I checked “not sure” because this varies a great deal from state to state. God knows there are enough laws on the books, so I’d be reluctant to add more. This seems like a no-brainer, but then you see people getting fired for a Kerry bumper sticker. I should be allowed to do whatever I want, provided it is legal, while off the job. Having said that, I should be fired (and probably sued by my employer) if I aid or abet a competitor. If states have gray areas here that should be clarified, they should do so, to protect both sides. Both sides. It seems like so many laws have been passed to protect employees, and so many employees have turned out to be litigious nuts, that it may be time to swing the pendulum with an eye to fairness for the employer.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 8 months ago

I think the boundaries are actually pretty clear. An employee should be considered a company representative on and off the clock. If, by their actions, they negatively affect the company’s image or ability to operate competitively, then management should have the right to take action. This principle does, however, need to be applied on a relative basis depending on the status of the worker. If a store-level employee is seen shopping at a competing store, it’s not realistically going to be as meaningful as if a top executive is spotted doing the same thing. So, if the employee is to be reprimanded, management should be able to show that the off-job activity was detrimental to the company.

Where this would certainly be hard or impossible to prove would be in an employee’s expression of his/her political affiliations, and so those types of off-job activities should certainly be off-bounds for the employer, unless politics are particularly relevant to company’s success, for some reason.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
15 years 8 months ago

Everyone has their individual line as to what’s acceptable behavior, on and off the job. My sense is that the companies that have the most motivated and satisfied workforces are those that work hard to inspire their employees, as opposed to generating results by regulating what’s appropriate behavior, attire, etc. Ninety-eight percent of employees will respond well to positive management and it’s bad form to spend a lot of time and energy restricting all your employees because of a bad apple or two.

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