May 13, 2015 12:59 pm
Updated: May 13, 2015 6:51 pm

Employees can be fired for ‘much less’ than defending FHRITP

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WATCH ABOVE: A TV reporter in Toronto is being hailed for her courage in standing up to some vulgar insults. They were hurled at her by fans at a soccer match, apparently part of a sad and disgusting trend. As Jennifer Tryon reports, some are now paying a serious price.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content. Discretion is advised.

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Hydro One is taking steps to fire Shawn Simoes who publicly defended men shouting “F–k her right in the p—y” (FHRITP) at a reporter at last weekend’s Toronto FC match.

But it was the weekend, and he wasn’t at work, which begs the question: what’s private and what’s public anymore?

When people freely put themselves in front of cameras, and their lives on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, it seems next to nothing is private. And Sunira Chaudhri, an employment lawyer and partner at Levitt Grosman, said people can be fired for “much less” than what Simoes did.

“You’re wearing the badge of your employer; you’re the ambassador for your employer in and out of the workplace.”

READ MORE: Creator of FHRITP defends phrase after Hydro One employee fired

Most workplaces, including Hydro One, have a code of conduct outlining what’s acceptable workplace behaviour. Hydro One’s Code of Business Conduct states clearly, “we treat employees and persons with whom we do business with dignity and respect.”

Harassment, according to the document, “is a form of discrimination which involves unwelcome and offensive comments, conduct, gestures or contact” and “is likely to be offensive, embarrassing or humiliating.”

Is telling a female reporter she’s “lucky there’s not a f—-king vibrator in your ear, like in England,” or that the FHRITP phrase is “f—king hilarious” harassment?  That’s for Hydro One – and most people commenting on Twitter – to decide.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne seems to think so:

“Those days of the old boys’ club where comments like this could be disregarded, those days are gone,” Chaudhri said. “Old boys’ club days are well past us and I think this was a bold move that Hydro One made for women. It’s a really good barometer of what the city of Toronto and its residents will accept.”

READ MORE: #SafeRedMile? Obscene FHRITP trend spurs ‘pussy cats consent’ team

But does the Hydro One workplace code of conduct apply to what Simoes said outside of work? Yes, said Chaudhri.

“If you’re going to engage in some kind of conduct that’s going to seem really unsavoury or shed some negative light on your employer, you can expect that that may come back to bite you,” Chaudhri said.

Simoes wasn’t the only one. There was another man who said he was planning on yelling FHRITP at City News reporter Shauna Hunt, and another who did, prompting her to confront the others.

WATCH BELOW: Reporter in FHRITP video hopes consequences will change behaviour. Alan Carter reports.

The other men haven’t been identified, but one is believed to work at Cognex, a multi-national corporation specializing in barcode readers. The company said in a statement Wednesday that it “takes this issue seriously and will be addressing it.”

“While the individual was attending the event on his own time and was not at a Cognex activity, the views expressed are totally inconsistent with Cognex’s values, and we find such comments reprehensible.”

Simoes’ termination certainly isn’t the first time someone’s been fired for what they’ve said or done outside the workplace. Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was recorded saying he didn’t want his girlfriend hanging out with black people and was forced to sell his team as a result. In Toronto, a group of Toronto Firefighters were turfed for making sexist comments on Twitter.

WATCH: One-on-one with the Toronto reporter who confronted ‘FHRITP’ hecklers

What’s public and what’s private has changed

While occurrences are rare, firing someone for what they’ve said is becoming more common as social media spreads.

“The realities have changed, regardless of what people’s attitudes or perceptions are, behaviour that we may have assumed in the past was relatively private or certainly not subject to wide scrutiny, now can be viewed virtually universally almost immediately,” Professor Hugh Arnold, an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Business, said in an interview Wednesday.

“We have to be much more aware of the fact that if we engage in inappropriate behaviour that it can be subject to scrutiny by the whole world, almost immediately. Is that a bad thing? Probably not.”

Sports leagues like the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL frequently train incoming rookies on how to conduct themselves in and out of the workplace, Arnold said, to keep embarrassing situations from impacting on the league’s brand.

But it’s not as common with every day, not-so-athletic people. Arnold agreed that companies should do a better job educating their employees about what’s expected when they’re not working.

But are employers reaching into the private lives of their employee’s looking for dirt? Usually, the opposite is true, Chaudhri said – people, like the men who put themselves on TV at a Toronto FC game, are making themselves available for public consumption.

“I think what employees need to realize is that the definition of private life has changed, it’s been redefined by social media,” Chaudhri said.

“If these guys wanted to remain private and in a private sphere, you don’t jump on a television camera and make disparaging comments or inflammatory comments that may land you in some hot water.”

Was he fired for cause or not? Probably doesn’t matter

Howard Levitt, an employment lawyer and senior partner at Levitt Grosman, said in an email Wednesday that Hydro One “inexpensively purchased a spectacular advertisement for its brand of supporting women and human rights both in and outside of the workplace.”

That’s the crux of the argument – if workplace behaviour can be seen to impact on a company’s brand, they don’t need much more of a reason to fire you.

Levitt went on to say that even if there is a wrongful dismissal suit, it’s still a “marvellous investment.”

But, whether or not there’s a lawsuit depends on whether Simoes was fired for cause. If he was, it means Hydro One told him his actions contravened their code of conduct and don’t have to give him severance.

If he wasn’t fired for cause, it means Hydro One just didn’t want him around anymore and gave him severance – and also no hope in winning a wrongful dismissal suit.

“Employees need to realize that an employer doesn’t need a good reason to terminate you, they never do, provided that there’s no discrimination with respect to the termination, an employer can always terminate you, always,” Chaudhri said.

The “minute-and-a-half of glorious footage” – as Chaudhri called it – would also draw unwanted media attention to any lawsuit.

“It would be publicized; it would be the last nail in the coffin with respect to his own reemployment. What employer would touch him with a ten foot pole?” Chaudhri said.

“The fallout of this already is, his face is everywhere, most people can figure out what his name is, and the second you google his name, you’re going to find all these stories.”

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