Monday, June 29, 2020

Liberalism at Work

In general, bosses shouldn’t fire workers for stuff they do on the weekends. Bosses should be legally permitted to fire workers for this reason. But people shouldn’t cheer bosses on when they do.

Lately, several people lost their jobs based on social media postings or their conduct outside of work. (Examples here, here, here, here, and here) Each case is different, but in many of them, it seems that bosses were firing workers in an attempt to demonstrate the company’s commitment to workplace inclusivity.


I agree that inclusivity is an important value at work. Nevertheless, I think liberals and progressives should generally oppose these dismissals because they should oppose workplace domination. Libertarians should oppose these dismissals too because even though employers should have a legal right to fire people at will on the basis of their social media posts or behavior outside of work, they still shouldn’t do it. Workplace domination is bad even if it shouldn’t be illegal.

Elizabeth Anderson makes a compelling case against workplace domination. When she joined Russ Roberts on EconTalk to discuss her book, Private Government, one of her examples of workplace domination was political pressure at work. She described “white-collar workers who are quite commonly pressured by their bosses to contribute money to favored political campaigns or political action committees.” Employers can monitor employees’ donations and employees with disagreeable politics could be disadvantaged in promotion decisions. 


Roberts then noted that employers can often dictate what workers do when they are not at work. Anderson replied,

Quite right. And this, I think, is even more objectionable. Normally we think that once you are off duty, you should be free from any kind of control or regulation by your boss. But, in the United States, the default rule of employment is employment at will. And that entails that your boss can fire you for any or no reason at all, including things that the boss finds out about your off-duty activity. For instance.…stuff that you might post on Facebook expressing perhaps controversial opinions can get one fired even if the Facebook posting isn't addressed to fellow workers or harassing them in any way but just expressing an opinion that the boss disagrees with. …In reality, people are fired for what they do over the weekend, and in their leisure time.

In contrast, Tyler Cowen wrote in response to Anderson,

A business usually should have the right to fire a worker for Facebook postings or other forms of “outside the workplace” activity. For a start, a lot of workers put racist, sexist, or otherwise discomforting comments and photos into their Facebook pages. When employers fire them, very often it is to protect some notion of the freedom of the other workers….The question of workplace freedom often boils down to one set of the workers against another. In that setting, allowing for a lot of apparently arbitrary firing decisions on net may support rather than oppose worker autonomy. (Private Government p.112)

In this exchange, I think Anderson and Cowen are both half-right. Anderson is right in saying that employers shouldn’t monitor employees’ social media accounts or speech outside the workplace, nor should they pressure employees to contribute to their favored political causes. Cowen is right that employers should not be legally prohibited from doing these things.

On the other hand, I also think Anderson and Cowen are also both half-mistaken. Anderson shouldn’t support regulations that limit employers’ ability to dismiss employees at will because this solution just trades workplace domination for political domination, which is even more pervasive and less escapable.

And Cowen should have been more worried that employers would fire people for bad reasons, or that it could be bad for employers to defer to an employees’ fellow workers to decide whether a person should be fired. The same reasons Anderson gives against subjecting employees to surveillance and arbitrary threats of dismissal from their bosses are also reasons against subjecting them to the same kinds of threats from their coworkers.

Another worry about firing people for their social media posting or behavior outside of work is that it is likely to be counterproductive if the goal is creating a welcoming workplace, even when bosses target speech and behavior that would undermine the values of corporate inclusivity. 

Consider a workplace that fails to make everyone feel welcome, a workplace that does not live up to its company’s commitment to inclusivity. In a workplace like this, expanding employers’ ability to dismiss people on the basis of their speech and conduct outside of work is may seem appealing in the short run. But without deeper reforms, corporate policies that permit bosses to fire people whose private conduct is viewed as objectionable or disagreeable could backfire in the long run.

Ultimately, expanding the power of the government, the bosses, or even the majority of workers is likely to end up harming the workers who have the least social power.