How much of your time does your employer deserve? Eight hours? Or is it the whole day, and the evening too? More important, how much of your public identity do they control? Does every thought you express need to reflect a golden light on the people who write your cheques? On your own time, are you allowed your beliefs, even if they're repellent?
The case of three firefighters dismissed from their jobs this week is instructive – and alarming. Two of them, Lawaun Edwards and Matt Bowman, were investigated after their sexist tweets were exposed in a National Post story this summer. One of Mr. Bowman's tweets read, "I'd never let a woman kick my ass. If she tried something, I'd be like HEY! You get your bitch ass into the kitchen and make me some pie." Mr. Edwards, responding to a tweet about a woman using the word "like" too much, wrote, "Would swat her in the back of the head been considered abuse or a way to reset the brain?"
The tweets, apparently, quoted a couple of (distinctly unfunny) TV shows. The Toronto Fire Department launched an investigation, first suspending and then firing Mr. Bowman and Mr. Edwards, as well as a third firefighter who is unnamed but may have posted something offensive on Facebook. The key word here is "offensive." Not illegal, or threatening to a specific individual, but distasteful. The firefighters weren't tweeting on official City of Toronto accounts.
A statement read by Toronto Fire Chief Jim Sales said, "The Toronto public service fosters a corporate culture that sets the highest standard of integrity, professionalism and ethical behaviour. It is our expectation all employees demonstrate and uphold these core values."
There's no indication that these firefighters were let go for any transgressions committed at work, on the company dime. If they'd made lewd comments or overtures to colleagues, that would be one thing, and you could understand that the hatchet would fall. But, in essence, they've been fired for (at worst) holding a set of beliefs that the rest of us find offensive or (at best) having a stupid and juvenile sense of humour. They've been fired for expressing their thoughts, however idiotic those thoughts are. I'm not sure that's a road we want to be travelling.
People who support the termination say the firefighters were contravening the City of Toronto's social-media policy, as if those policies are holy writ brought down from the mountain, not human resources documents developed by companies to cover their bottoms in case of embarrassing exposure. Guidelines are open to question and interpretation. In the case of the firefighters, their poor judgment combined with bad timing; the fire department is making an admirable attempt to bring more women into the fold.
Stripping someone of his or her livelihood is the direst punishment, but I fear we're going to see more of it as the intersection between work and life becomes increasingly blurred. Workers are expected to extend their company's "brand" online, and God help anyone who accidentally besmirches the brand.
Consider a couple of recent examples: The U.S. federal appeals court just upheld the principle that a Facebook "like" is protected as free speech, overturning a lower-court decision. The case involved a deputy sheriff in Virginia who'd been canned after he hit the "like" button on his boss's political rival's campaign. (I'm glad I wasn't at that office Christmas party.)
And what if the company you're working for decides they don't want you around any more, and your extracurricular activity becomes a convenient way to get rid of you? If that seems far-fetched, consider the case of the British professional rugby player Keith Mason. The Huddersfield player was dismissed after his girlfriend jokingly posted a picture of a teammate's naked bottom on his Twitter account. The team fired Mr. Mason, claiming he had brought the club's values into disrepute (this is a rugby club, remember.) Mr. Mason argued successfully in court that the team was looking for an excuse to get rid of him and hire another player. Last month he won his suit and damages of $250,000.
The union representing the Toronto firefighters has vowed to fight their dismissal. In the meantime, I hope they're dwelling on the damage caused by the awful, pervasive sexism they contributed to by hitting "send." I can't believe I'm defending a couple of immature bozos, but I am, because tomorrow the immature bozo could be you – or me. What if, sitting at home, you post an article on Facebook that criticizes one of your employer's investments? Or your political affiliation becomes an embarrassment to them? What if you work on the trading floor but suddenly start posting articles from Socialist Worker? Are they allowed to sack you then?
Perhaps that's the future. But a world in which you have to spend every waking moment as a billboard for your employer, parroting the exact same thoughts as all of your colleagues, is too much of a Metropolis world for me.