We have previously discussed the issue of when it is appropriate to punishment people for conduct outside of the work place. We have followed cases where people have been fired after boorish or insulting conduct once their names and employers are made known. (here and YouTube videos and drunken scenes). Recently I spoke at Utah Valley University about the private regulation of speech, particularly in businesses curtailing not just workplace speech but speech outside of the workplace. The latest such scandal involves ESPN reporter Britt McHenry who was given a suspension after a video was posted on YouTube showing her raving at a towing company employee about her wait and lack of skills. People are now demanding that she be fired.
The suspension of McHenry is only for a week. People are demanding more. The video itself is pretty awful as McHenry chastises a female off-camera employee of Advanced Towing in Arlington, Va., after her car was towed. McHenry taunts the employee “That’s why I have a degree and you don’t. I wouldn’t work in a scumbag place like this.” Many have objected that she should not be working at all particularly after she added “Lose some weight, baby girl” as well as making fun of her teeth in the video below. Notably, the woman calmly warns McHenry that she is being filmed.
McHenry later apologized: “In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things. As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”
Business are allowed to terminate at-will employees for conduct that is embarrassing to their businesses, even when the conduct occurs outside of work. This is particularly the case for ESPN hosts and reporters who constitute the face of their corporation in a ratings driven market. Some such terminations can raise free speech questions or interference with political activities.
Then there is the question of the extent of the punishment. I recently read of the status of another person involved in a notorious YouTube video. As previously discussed the outburst of the former CFO, Adam Smith, directed at a Chick-Fil-A employee. Smith, 37, was universally condemned for his treatment and then fired as CFO of a medical device manufacturer in Arizona. He was protesting against Chick-Fil-A for the fast-food chain’s anti-gay stance by going through and just ordering water and berating a minimum wage worker. He is shown raving “Chick-Fil-A is a hateful corporation. I don’t know how you live with yourself and work here. I don’t understand it. This is a horrible corporation with horrible values. You deserve better.”
It was disgraceful. Like the ESPN reporter, there was not just the unfairness and rudeness but the scene of a successful person berating a low-income worker. Moreover, he is the one who posted the video that brought disaster to his doorstep. So, he not only failed to see the gross conduct that he displayed but proudly posted it for others to see. However, Smith is now on food stamps and is treated as positively radioactive by potential employers. n with horrible values. You deserve better.”
Smith’s business received a torrent of calls and even bomb threats. He was quickly fired. After losing his job, Smith also lost his home and was forced to live with his wife Amy and their four children in an RV. They have had to sell their possessions and no one wants to interview let alone hire him. You can read about his status on ABCNEWS.
It is really the kids that I feel sorry for in this situation and the question is whether it is time to forgive someone for a stupid, self-destructive act. The story illustrates how social media and stories will continue to follow people — creating a type of new social media pariah who is left unemployable and shunned.
As for McHenry, the damage done to her public persona could be lethal to her career for a different reason. She is a public figure who (as she noted to her victim) cultivates how she looks and is perceived. Unlike Smith, she also expressly raised her employment in the rant. She is now not viewed as a particularly attractive attention for a media corporation.