Skelton: Firing may be severe, but not unreasonable

Editor’s note: It hasn’t been a good year for public stupidity. In May, a Hydro One employee was fired for on-air harassment of a television reporter following a professional soccer game. Soon afterward, a TC Transcontinental employee was suspended after heckling a comic at an awards show. Both cases have raised interesting questions about the public and private self, as well as an employer’s responsibility to govern the latter at the expense of the former.

Today, Western News offers two takes on the topic.

Faculty of Information and Media studies professor Mark A. Rayner explores the notion through an original piece of fiction.

Philosophy professor Anthony Skelton gets to the core of not only these actions are wrong, but why the punishments by employers fit the actions.

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By Anthony Skelton

Imagine that you are at work, trying to do your best and need to concentrate. You need to be relatively free from distraction. You need not to feel threatened.

Suppose that just as you are in the midst of the most important part of your work, a man arrives at your workstation using speech not only difficult to respond to, but also to which you are warranted in taking offence. Suppose he says to you, “F— her right in the p—-” or “there’s a 51 per cent chance that my buddy here will have sex with you, and I will take the other 49 per cent.”

CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt and comedian Jen Grant found themselves in this position last month.

SKELTON

SKELTON

Hunt was reporting live from a soccer match when one man directed, and several others conspired to direct (before Hunt interrupted them), the first vulgar phrase (known as FHRITP in certain Internet circles) phrase at her. Some other men, acting similarly, looked on laughing; one man defended the practice.

Grant was performing a comedy routine at a corporate event when a single heckler directed the second remark at her.

What these men did was not merely annoying; it was not merely a silly prank Hunt and Grant should tolerate as part of doing their job.

The behaviour was wrong.

This much is obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is why it is wrong and what the correct punishment for it consists in.

What the men did was wrong for a variety of reasons.

First, by heckling Hunt and Grant, the men were interfering with the women’s ability to do their jobs. The men were interfering with professional autonomy.

A second, and more significant reason, is it constituted a form of harassment. The comments targeted the women because they are women with the aim of reducing them to something perceived to be vulgar or disreputable, to individuals to be viewed as no more than sex objects or sex organs. This is a particularly virulent form of harassment because the comments are ones to which it is difficult to respond. Some speech constituting harassment can be rebutted with argument. Not these statements. They serve no meaningful point, artistic or intellectual or otherwise. They are not a form of argument or protest; they are not part of a serious political movement. They are just pointless forms of harassment that harm particular women.

This leads to a third, and equally serious, reason for thinking this behaviour wrong.

The comments made to Hunt and Grant are directed primarily at women. They reinforce the idea that women are sex objects, or are to be viewed primarily, whether in the workplace or elsewhere, as there for the sexual or other frivolous enjoyment of men. They therefore help to reinforce the inequality between the sexes already prevalent in society, and therefore they contribute to sexist forces harming women generally.

What happened to Hunt and Grant is a serious wrong to them and to women.

So, what is the right way to combat it?

It certainly seems acceptable to use the law to combat this behaviour. In Calgary, a man has been fined for yelling obscenities at a CBC reporter.

Might other punishments be warranted?

The man, who conspired to harass Hunt and who defended doing so, was fired from his job; the man who heckled Grant was suspended from his.

Is it morally permissible for an employer to suspend or fire an employee when the sort of behaviour under discussion occurs while the employee is on his own time?

Suppose the answer is yes.

One might worry that this grants employers too much power over the private lives of employees. It seems wrong, for example, for an employer to fire someone because they have a lifestyle or stance of which the employer disapproves.

But the behaviour under discussion here is no ordinary kind. It’s not part of a legitimate lifestyle; it’s not part of a political or religious stance. The behaviour exhibited toward Hunt and Grant is clearly inconsistent with basic human decency. It is known to be morally egregious; it is clearly without any merit or point; it is clearly likely and known to be likely to contribute to a hostile climate both within and without the work place.

In cases of this sort, it is not unreasonable to think it permissible to remove someone from his position.

One might think this too harsh. One might think that if it is an individual’s first offence, or an isolated incident, or is unlikely to interfere with the employee’s ability to do his job, the employer ought only to mete out a small penalty, e.g., sensitivity training.

But who wants to wait to find out whether the behaviour is isolated or for the second offence to occur, given the costs that the behaviour has?

And what about the effects this employee’s presence has on the women with whom he works?

It is unclear how retaining the services of a person prone to such behaviour could be good for an employer or for others working with the employee, no matter what talents that employee possesses. This is especially true if the employee is in charge of hiring or promoting or supervising or evaluating women.

If we are to get serious about harassment in the workplace, and harassment and sexism in general, serious consequences for harassers are in order.