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1.4 Facebook and the Unavoidability of Business Ethics

Learning Objective

  1. Show how business ethics stretches beyond working life.

The Facebook Firing

Business ethics in some form is inescapable inside factories, office buildings, and other places where work gets done. The application of business ethics principles and guidance doesn’t stop, though, when the workday ends or outside the company door. Because our economic lives mingle so intimately with our private existences, the decisions and reasoning shaping our laboring eventually shape our lives generally. Business ethics, as the problems bedeviling Dawnmarie Souza show, provides a way to examine and make sense of a large segment of our time, both on and off the job.

Souza’s problems started when the ambulance she worked on picked up a “17.” That’s code for a psychiatric case. This particular 17, as it happened, wasn’t too crazy to form and submit a complaint about the treatment received from Souza. Since this was the second grievance the ambulance service had received on Souza in only ten days, she sensed that she’d be getting a suspension. “Looks like,” she wrote on her Facebook page later that day, “I’m getting some time off. Love how the company allows a 17 to be a supervisor.” She also referred to her real supervisor with some choice four-letter words.

A number of coworkers responded to her post with their own supportive and agreeing comments. Management responded by firing her.

The termination decision came easily to the ambulance service, American Medical Response of Connecticut, since their policy explicitly prohibited employees from identifying or discussing the company or other employees in the uncontrolled public forum that is the Internet. Around the water cooler, at home, or during weekend parties, people can say what they like. Given the semipermanent record that is the web, however, and the ambulance service’s natural inclination to protect its public image, posting there was out of bounds.

But, Souza responded, there’s no difference. If people can talk at the water cooler and parties, why can’t they post on Facebook? She’s not claiming to speak for the company, she’s just venting with a keypad instead of vocal chords.

The celebrity blogger and Facebook addict Perez Hilton came down on the company’s side: “We think Dawnmarie should be fired, and we support the company’s decision to let her go. When you post things online, it’s out there for the public to see, and it’s a sign of disloyalty and disrespect to deal with a work-related grievance in such a manner.”“Facebook-Related Firing Sparks Legal Drama!,” PerezHilton.com (blog), accessed May 11, 2011, http://perezhilton.com/2010-11-09-woman-fired-over-comments- she-made-about-her-boss-on-facebook-brings-about-court-case#respond.

The Reach of Business Ethics

When someone like Perez Hilton—a blogger most comfortable deriding celebrities’ bad hair days—finds himself wrapped in a business ethics debate, you’ve got to figure the discipline is pretty much unavoidable. Regardless, the Souza episode displays many of the ways business ethics connects with our nonworking existence, whether we like it or not:

  • It doesn’t sound like Souza displayed any great passion about her job. Maybe she really doesn’t care that she got fired. Or maybe she cares but only because it means a lost paycheck. On the other hand, it may just have been a bad day; it’s possible that she usually gets up in the morning eager to mount the ambulance. It’s hard to know, but it’s certain that this—the decision about what we want to do with our professional lives—is business ethics. When choosing a job, what has value? The money it provides? Satisfaction from helping others? Status? Or do you just want something that gives you the most free time possible? There are no right or wrong answers, but these are all ethical decisions tangling your personal and professional lives together.
  • The mix between the personal and professional on the question of one’s job tends to link tighter as people get older. Many of us define who we and others are through work. When finding out about someone new, the question—embraced by some and dreaded by others—inevitably comes up. When meeting a woman at a party, when being sent on a blind date, or when discussing old high school friends or the guy who just moved into the next-door apartment, the question hums just below the surface, and it’s never long until someone comes out and asks. Of course, for collegians and young people working part-time jobs, it doesn’t matter so much because everyone knows that where you work isn’t where you’ll end up working. Once someone hits the midtwenties, though, the question “what do you do?” starts to press and it won’t let up.
  • Perez Hilton wrote that Souza displayed disloyalty to her company when she trashed the management on Facebook. The following questions are raised: What is loyalty? What is it worth? When should you feel it? When do you have a right to demand it from others? Is there any difference among loyalty to the company, to family, and to friends?
  • One of Hilton’s readers posted a pithy response to Hilton in the web page’s comments section: “I bet if she were gay, and did the same exact thing, you would be singing a different tune!” Perez Hilton, it’s widely known, is about as exuberantly gay as they come. As it happens, in his line of work that orientation isn’t professionally harmful. For others, however, the revelation may be career damaging. Hilton, in fact, is despised by some in Hollywood for his habit of outing gay celebrities, people who hide part of themselves in the name of furthering their career. The business ethics question here is also a life one. Would you hide who you are to facilitate things at work? Should you? Doesn’t everyone do that to some extent and in some ways?
  • Another reader posted this comment: “In the US, your employer owns you. I mean they can make you piss in a cup to check and see what you did over the weekend.” Should employers be able to change what you do over the weekend?
  • A number of readers defended Souza by upholding the right to free speech—she should be able to say whatever she wants wherever she wants without fear of retribution. In response to those assertions, this was posted, “Of course we have freedom of speech. Employers also have the freedom to employ whoever they wish. Your decision is whether whatever is on your mind is more important than your job.” Does freedom of speech—or any other basic liberty—end or get conditioned when the workday begins?
  • One commenter wrote, “I’m going to have to agree with the company on this one. An employer expects proper business demeanor even while off the clock.” What is “proper demeanor”? Who decides? On the basis of what?
  • Many people spend eight (or more) hours a day on the job. There’s no shortage of women who see their boss more than their husband, of men who remember the birthday of the guy in the next cubicle before their own child’s. Parties tend to include workmates; companies invite clients to ball games. The sheer hours spent at work, along with the large overlaps between professional and social relationships, make separating the ethics of the office and the home nearly impossible.
  • This comment is aimed right at Perez Hilton and his Internet gossip column, which wins few points for checking and confirming claims but definitely gets the juicy and embarrassing rumors out about the private lives of celebrities: “Are you insane? All you did for God knows how long is put nasty stuff up about people for the public to see as a sign of disloyalty and disrespect.” Assuming that’s a reasonable depiction of Hilton’s work, the question his career raises is: what are you willing to do to the lives of others to get yourself ahead at work?

Underlining all these questions is a distinction that’s easy to make in theory but difficult to maintain in real life. It’s one between institutional business ethicsGeneral questions of business ethics surrounding unidentified corporations and generic individuals. and personal business ethicsQuestions of business ethics attaching to specific people in particular circumstances.. Institutional ethics in business deals with large questions in generic and anonymous terms. The rules and discussions apply to most organizations and to individuals who could be anyone. Should companies be allowed to pollute the air? What counts as a firing offense? The personal level, by contrast, fills with questions for specific people enmeshed in the details of their particular lives. If Perez Hilton has gotten rich dishing dirt on others, is he allowed to assert that others must treat their employers respectfully?

Key Takeaway

  • The questions pursued by business ethics cross back and forth between professional and personal lives.

Review Questions

  1. What are two reasons business ethics decisions tend to affect lives outside work?
  2. What are two ways business ethics decisions may affect lives outside work?