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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.
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:
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?