Monday, December 21, 2009

Fantasy of football league led to reality of firing

You can hardly go anywhere without hearing some discussion about the high national unemployment rate, and for many businesses these layoffs are directly linked to the economic woes brought on by the global economy. So it is no wonder why employers are tightening their belts and, because of this, employees are being as cautious as ever not to upset the balance between worktime and personal time out of fear of being fired.

As such, employees in today’s businesses need to pay extra-special attention not to get involved in those time-honored reasons for termination—i.e., harassment, fighting at work, repeatedly coming in late, poor work ethic, running a fantasy football league, improper use of Internet, etc. Wait a minute! Running a fantasy football league is not a reason to get fired, is it? It sure is, or at least it was for four employees who worked for Fidelity Investments in Texas, as they found out the hard way that violating the company’s gambling policy was less “fantasy” and more reality.

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of the employees, Cameron Pettigrew, was called into an office to discuss what the company determined was a violation of its policies against gambling at work, as he was a commissioner for the league. He was fired soon after for violating the policy, as were three other employees. According to Pettigrew: "Firing a guy for being in a $20 fantasy league? Let's be honest, that's a complete overreaction," said Pettigrew. "In this economic time, especially. To fire people over something like this, it's just cold."

But Fidelity spokesperson Vin Loporchio responded, saying: “We have clear policies that relate to gambling. Participation in any form of gambling through the use of Fidelity time or equipment or any other company resource is prohibited. In addition to being illegal in a lot of places, it can also be disruptive. We want our employees to be focused on our customers and clients.”

Although Pettigrew claimed he never used company e-mails to talk about his fantasy football league, investigators found two instant messages that pertained to fantasy football, which he explained was just a friend asking about a current football player. So, there are many ominous questions that one should ask: Was this even gambling? Did the employer have the right to terminate these employees? Do text messages about a fantasy football league really violate company gambling policies? Should employers be looking into employees’ text messages on (presumed) company phones?

The last couple of questions are somewhat being debated by the US Supreme Court (See: High Court to decide if SWAT officer will get Fourth Amendment slap across the mouth—deals with privacy of text messages on employer handhelds), and is left for further debate. However, the other questions present interesting issues for both employer and employee.

On one side of the spectrum, many could argue that employees need short breaks from the tedious “goings-on” within a workplace, and they get them without getting fired, e.g, going out to smoke, “water cooler” chats, etc. Also, these fantasy football leagues, if they don’t interfere with work, are really just ways for grown men and women to act like they run a team, and so they are less about gambling and more about having a little fun—or at least that is how many participants feel. And there is certainly no reason to fire someone for being a member of a league, because it is just a good-natured game.

On the flipside, employers have a duty to keep employees working and on task, and not playing “games.” Also, if a policy is clear about gambling, and if fantasy football is considered gambling (the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 declared that it is not gambling), then there seems little recourse for these employees, since a place of employment is for making money and not for bringing people together to play in fantasy football leagues. According to Fort Worth attorney Angela Robinson, an expert in employment law, interviewed by NBC Dallas Fortworth regarding this issue:

"As long as the policy is implemented across the board in a fair manner, applicable to all employees, then they can be fired, [but this] is new territory, I actually do a lot of employee handbooks. And I have never seen it in an employee handbook."

The problem is, what we have here are employees who seemed to really enjoy their jobs, and yet were fired for engaging in something recreational. This seems less like a lesson and more like a warning from employers. And the warning is simple: Tough economic times or not…high rate of layoffs or not…we are watching.

Much like articles about employers monitoring Internet use on the job, employees need to be aware of not only company policies, but also the fact that many employers are watching out for nonbusiness-like activities, and they are acting on what they find. So, employees need to understand that with financials down and business costs still rising, being fired for playing a “game” in today’s workplace is no fantasy, just a cold, hard reality.

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