The workplace's two-way street
Suleiman a-Shafi was a very respected Arab-affairs reporter for Channel 2 news. He is considered an able and intrepid newsman who is said to have been arrested a number of times for sneaking into the Gaza Strip pursuing his stories.
During the years Shafi covered the Gilad Schalit abduction and captivity for Channel 2, he kept a diary of his reports, which was turned into a book, Shavui (Captive). He cut a deal with Yediot Publishing to publish his book, without the knowledge of his employer.
Channel 2 was furious at Shafi for using information in his book that he gathered in the course of his employment but withheld from them; for publishing the book without notifying them; and for publishing a book whose journalistic standards, in their opinion, reflect badly on Shafi and Channel 2.
They fired him soon after the book was published.
Shafi sued Channel 2 in Labor Court. He claimed he had notified them as soon as the book deal was closed and intended to broadcast all the material in the book before publication. But the rapid publication of the book and his firing prevented that, he said. Shafi also claimed that he had no contract and therefore was not forbidden to write a book in his spare time.
The court case unfortunately conflates two unrelated issues: the ethics of Shafi's conduct and the ethics of his discharge. It is important to affirm that misconduct is not the only grounds for losing your job. Anytime your employer feels he doesn't need you, he has a right to fire you.
I think Shafi's conduct was audacious but not necessarily unethical. Different professions have differing standards of independence, and perhaps it is unreasonable to think that the kind of person who will take risks to get a good story (people who sneak into and out of Gaza aren't usually retiring types) will not take certain risks to advance his reporting career.
Shafi evidently thought his employers would congratulate him on his book, which, in his eyes, added to his stature as an employee. He was willing to risk the opposite outcome: that they would upbraid him for acting so independently.
The court declined to intervene.
If Shafi has the right to decide he wants to act independently and write a book instead of only doing what his employer lets him do, then by the same token his employer has the right to decide they don't want an employee with such an independent attitude. This is a straightforward management decision that no court should have the right to review.
A priori, there is no reason for the law to intervene in hiring decisions, even if they are unrelated to job performance. If you don't like someone, you shouldn't have to work with them, much less pay them. This is what the common-law principle of "employment at will" implies.
However, in many cases there is a genuine public interest in regulating grounds for discharge. When employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, then race and class distinctions may be perpetuated; when they are able to discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, the kind of open public discourse that a democracy depends on may be chilled. Even in lesser cases, keeping employers out of people's private lives is a desirable protection of privacy.
However, these considerations are not germane to the Shafi case. All of Channel 2's considerations were directly related to Shafi's job performance: what information he brought to the attention of his employer, what kind of professional image he has, etc.
It may well be true that nothing Shafi did was improper. No law requires a person to have total loyalty to his employer. But likewise, no law requires an employer to keep a person they feel lacks the degree of professional loyalty they demand.
In the end, the court decision left things exactly where they belong. Shafi has every right to write his own book in his own spare time, and Channel 2 has every right to decide that reporters who compete with them in their spare time don't belong on their payroll.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).[email protected]
|News Stories|||||News Archive|