Published April 19, 2013
Image is Everything
Universities should hold their employees to ethical standards.
Stevie Thompson

Universities can and should hold their employees to ethical standards to whatever degree is necessary in order to maintain their desired public image and level of professionalism. While freedom of speech is protected by the United States Constitution under the First Amendment, unspoken laws of workplace etiquette still carry weight in modern society and create quite a stir when flouted. The recent scandal over University of Rochester professor Steven Landsburg and his controversial remarks about sexual crime indicates a conflict of interests between free personal expression and the everyday give-and-take of navigating a professional workplace.

When an individual enters the professional world, he or she holds the implicit understanding that a certain canon of limitations on language, dress, behavior and other aspects of everyday life are expected in order to maintain a functional, conflict-free work environment. By accepting a professional job post, a person makes an unspoken agreement on some of these issues, and may formally acknowledge others through a company workplace policy code of some kind. In “The New Rules Of Business Etiquette,” Forbes magazine cites the ubiquity of technology, changes in fashion and work carrying over into weekends as factors that contain countless nuances, and can make modern-day professionalism difficult to navigate for both employers and employees. Without a set office policy, the article proposes that professionals may feel confused or conflicted about answering work emails during non-business hours, and what exactly a “casual Friday” entails.

While accurately interpreting the First Amendment to provide equal freedom of speech to U.S. citizens is a legitimate goal, it must be understood that there is a time and place for expressing controversial opinions just because an individual possesses the right to do so does not mean that they should. For example, an employee at a religiously affiliated university possesses freedom of worship, and the right to hold whatever beliefs her or she desires. However, expressing anti-religious sentiments in the workplace, while surrounded by adherents to the criticized belief system, is not an intelligent career move, and could very well result in a formal reprimand, alienation of coworkers, loss of a job, a lawsuit or all of the above. Any behavior that occurs in the public eye is subject to judgment, and many companies and institutions value their overall appearance to potential consumers more than a troublesome employee’s right to radical freedom of speech at their own expense. This was exemplified in a 2011 case in Pennsylvania, when customer complaints led to a Chicago Outback Steakhouse employee being fired for merely donning a yellow Tea Party bracelet.

Citizens of the United States live in a culture where image is everything and the ripples of every action increase with additional factors such as controversy, fame and power. The importance of public image becomes apparent in every step towards gaining a successful career, and this vital aspect of professionalism increases the higher up a job position is. Landsburg may have gotten away with his comments if he held a post lower on the career ladder, but working for the University of Rochester as a professor put him in a position of prominence. The media plays a noteworthy role in amplifying this effect, by catering to shocking, sensational stories that sell. Political campaigns, elections and other career moves made public are fraught with complex interpretations of an individual’s every move.

The Landsburg controversy gives rise to further questions- would the outspoken professor have made the same sweeping statements if he was up for a promotion? In an official statement from the University of Rochester, President Joel Seligman revealed the college’s viewpoint by stating, “Academic freedom is a core value of our university and vital to provide assurance that one can hold unpopular or provocative views in safety. This is not always an easy balance, but it is a balance vital to uphold in a university that both values respect for all of our students, faculty, staff and visitors and intellectual freedom.” While advocating the freedom of speech and First Amendment rights is admirable, offended employees, students and prospective students alike may not share this view and after all, no university can survive without a substantial community of supporters. Offended readers must call his awareness of political correctness and moral issues into question, and it seems unlikely that his attention-grabbing statements would be rewarded.

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