Legal Insight: Why You Need to Always Guard Your Words and Actions

By John Hollon

Oct. 30, 2009

I don’t get into a lot of legal issues at the Business of Management, but here’s a good one from Workforce Management advisory board member Stephen Paskoff.

Steve is a former EEOC trial attorney and management law firm partner. His Atlanta-based company, ELI, provides “a variety of programs and services that teach professional workplace conduct, helping our clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk.”

He also writes a blog that gets into a lot of legal issues in the workplace, and I found this blog post he wrote this week to be especially insightful given the explosion in social networking and modern communications. I’m happy to share it with you because readers tell us that they always need good workforce legal information, so take a read on this and let me know what you think:

“I’ve wondered when it would happen–for years there have been stories of athletes, proxies for other celebrities, who say and do what they want while their behavior is ignored, minimized or attributed to ‘locker room’ humor or conduct. But the doors of locker rooms, operating rooms, broadcasting booths and boardroom suites are wide open these days; conduct that used to be tolerated in the bastions of such resident ‘untouchables’ is now falling prey to general workplace standards, publicity, business harm and personal penalties.

“Just a few weeks ago, David Letterman’s staff affairs became the grist of other comics’ gags and gigs of online commentary. In quick succession, the married ESPN sportscaster Steve Phillips’ escapade with a much younger, single staffer led to his leave of absence and recent separation, following her releasing intimate details of her affair to his wife–and the public. She lost her job too.

“Also, ESPN suspended Bob Griese for making on-air disparaging comments about a Latino racecar driver. Almost before I’d finished reading that online scoop, another story broke about Larry Johnson, a Kansas City Chiefs running back who used a homophobic slur on Twitter and while addressing reporters. At the time of this writing, Johnson has been told to stay away from the team while the NFL and the Chiefs complete their investigation.

“What’s happening here is that the transparency of modern communications is preventing such behavior, no matter who the offender, from being swept under the rug, or bed, as the case may be. So the message is simple and direct, not just for those at the middle and bottom but also for organizational leaders and ‘high’ performers.

As we have taught in Civil Treatment, ‘Guard your words and actions.’ The more public your role, the more cautious you must be. There is no invincibility when conduct is outrageous, unprofessional and uncivil. What’s increasingly obvious is that the issue involving such conduct is not simply legal risk. ESPN’s brand has been harmed by its broadcasters’ actions, and the careers of those involved have been tarnished if not ruined, in Phillips’ case.

“Whether lawsuits are filed and ultimately dismissed or settled is almost secondary. Business and irrevocable personal harm has been done, and all of it could have been avoided if standards of professionalism and behavior had been in place and understood and applied by everyone, at all levels.”

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