ESPN reporter Britt McHenry is not exactly a household name. But when her cruel comments to a towing company employee went viral, she gained the sort of publicity that her post-game reporting never attracted.
In case you missed it, the lovely and charming Ms. McHenry was recorded uttering these pearls of wisdom to a woman who worked at a towing yard where McHenry’s car had been impounded:
- Maybe if I was missing some teeth, they would hire me here;
- Do you feel good about your job? So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?
- I’m on television and you’re in a bleeping trailer, honey!
- Lose some weight, baby girl.
McHenry, who is 28, uttered all of these comments after the towing company employee warned her that she would “play the video, so be careful.” McHenry then looks straight into a camera and nonetheless escalates her rant.
ESPN drew criticism when it suspended McHenry for only one week. Some unnamed employees said the reporter should have been fired. The sports network had previously handed down longer suspensions to male show hosts for on-air comments that paled in comparison.
But the episode raises a broader question regarding off-duty conduct. In this age of smartphones filming anything and everything, what actions should employees be held accountable for away from the workplace?
Certainly, one’s job does matter. A nasty accountant who engaged in a similar tirade may be no less effective at his or her job. But someone working on television, as a public official or in another high-profile position may be forever compromised since their ability to work effectively is at least partly dependent on having the public’s trust. As a result, McHenry’s belittling of a low-level employee and implying that she was on some sort of pedestal by working in television may well have merited termination.
Some states have laws protecting lawful, off-duty conduct. In those states, the employer must show a connection between the employee’s conduct and the employer’s business before firing that employee.
Employers with written off-duty conduct policies may have a leg up on others when it comes to their ability to respond to vile conduct that could put the business in a bad light. For instance, an employer with a policy stating that its employment rules should be followed at all times, whether an employee is working or not, may be on firmer ground. Ultimately, the key factor is the extent to which the behavior affects the company and its reputation.
What would have been an appropriate punishment if McHenry worked at your company and engaged in similar conduct? Share your thoughts with a comment below, by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter@DavidWeisenfeld.