What You Do Outside Work Can Get You Fired
The recent firing of Atlanta’s fire chief shows that what you do on your own time can still get you fired. While the details of the story bring up questions about religious discrimination as well as potential discrimination based on sexual orientation, at its heart is an employer’s decision to fire an employee for something he did outside of work.
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Atlanta Fire Chief Wrote a Book That Got Him Fired
According to a report by The Washington Post, the mess in Atlanta started because Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran wrote and self-published a book in his off-duty time. The title of the book is Who Told You That You Were Naked. The book also expresses certain religious views. It also calls homosexuality a perversion and compares it to bestiality.
While the book was published in Cochran’s off-duty time, it may have been distributed to several fire department employees. It ultimately resulted in Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, firing Cochran. Reed stated that the employment termination was not based on Cochran’s personal religious beliefs but rather on his poor judgment.
“I believe his actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce,” said the mayor. “Every single employee under the Fire Chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.”
The mayor also expressed that the fire chief’s failure to inform the mayor that he intended to publish such an inflammatory book demonstrated a lack of judgment.
Is This Religious Discrimination?
On its face, the fire chief’s firing may appear to be discrimination based on his religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for an employer to discharge any individual because of the individual’s religion. This is why the mayor’s words are so important. The mayor has been very clear that the reason for the termination of employment is not because of the Cochran’s beliefs but rather because his way of representing those beliefs in public undermines his ability to do the job he was hired to do. This may save Atlanta if Cochran decides to file a wrongful termination suit.
Bona Fide Occupational Qualification
Another hurdle Cochran may face in a wrongful termination suit is that the city may be able to argue that it has a bona fide occupational qualification defense to any religious discrimination claim. In the Washington Post article, city representatives point out that the views expressed in Cochran’s book directly conflict with the city’s anti-discrimination policies when it comes to sexual orientation. It is arguable that a fire chief is required as part of his or her job not only to follow those anti-discrimination rules, but also to give the public perception that he or she will do so.
Cochran’s individual beliefs may not have been a problem assuming he never used them to make employment decisions, but his choice to air those beliefs in an extremely public forum could certainly undermine the public’s confidence in his ability to leave his discriminatory beliefs out of hiring decisions. At the end of the day, his decision to publish this book outside of work cost him his job, and it may provide a defense if he argues he was wrongfully terminated.
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Dan Kalish is a partner and founder of HKM Employment Lawyers (www.hkm.com), an employment law firm that represents individuals nationwide. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, Dan frequently speaks and writes about issues related to employment law on hkm.com/employmentblog.