January 28th, 2019
Katie Basch at Kastner Westman & Wilkins
It’s that time of year again, at least in Ohio, where the skies are steely gray, the weather is frigid, and it is time to decide if you are rooting for or against Tom Brady as he is set to make his 9th Super Bowl appearance on Sunday. Despite Brady’s impressive achievement, there are plenty of people that have been grumbling “not again” at dinner tables, on the internet, and around the office. But could your opinion on Brady’s G.O.A.T. status or rooting for or against the Patriots get you fired?
Almost all states operate under an at-will employment model, meaning that, in the absence of a contract, your employment can be terminated at any time for any lawful reason. Therefore, the short answer is yes – an employee’s affinity for and loyalty to a particular sports team could be a lawful basis for termination as it is not protected by any equal employment opportunity law, such as Title VII or Ohio’s Civil Rights Act. In fact, a Chicago-area car salesman found this fact out the hard way.
The car salesman, a Green Bay Packers fan, relished in the team’s 2011 victory in the NFC championship over the Chicago Bears by wearing a Green Bay Packers tie to work the next day. The dealership’s general manager, a Bears fan, did not take too kindly to the salesman’s tie, asking him repeatedly to remove it, and ultimately firing the salesman when he refused to do so.
While this is an extreme example, it does raise questions about employees’ interactions and appropriate workplace conduct. Was it appropriate for the general manager to ask the employee to remove his tie? Was the salesman insubordinate in refusing to do so? The answers to these questions might be as difficult to obtain as trying to name every Cleveland Browns starting quarterback since the team re-entered the league in 1999. But one thing is clear – how employees interact and get along in the workplace matters.
While the general manager’s issue with the salesman’s tie might be characterized as petty, if not even ridiculous, it highlights the fact that real-life issues of bullying and harassment happen in workplaces across America every day. Unlawful discrimination and harassment have been discussed for decades, but in the broader discussion of workplace conduct, bullying has become a large and puzzling component of this discussion. What constitutes workplace bullying? How do employees report it? And how do employers address it?
A great first step employers can take is to acknowledge that workplace bullying and other unprofessional behavior does happen, and that such behavior can have a negative impact on the workplace. The next step is often to adopt a workplace bullying policy that outlines what the employer considers to be inappropriate conduct. A well-drafted anti-bullying policy will provide employers with a helpful paradigm to examine what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, and will clearly communicate these expectations to employees in advance of any issues.
While moderate civil discourse in the workplace about the Patriots’ 3rd straight Super Bowl run is to be expected, belittling, demeaning, harassing and/or verbally abusing someone for any reason is inappropriate and should be addressed to maintain and encourage a respectful and professional work environment.
Should you have any questions regarding discrimination, harassment or workplace bullying, or if you are interested in adopting a workplace bullying policy or engaging in workplace conduct training, please contact Katie Basch or any other K|W|W attorney.