21 July 2008

It's Not the Spanking Per Se - It's Identity Valence at Work

I feel for Prof. Colin Wightman of Acadia University. He was terminated from his position for
us[ing] his work-issued laptop to engage in “highly inappropriate communications of a sexual nature,” and that “the conduct giving rise to [the police's] ongoing investigation is utterly incompatible with the purpose, principles and operating imperatives of Acadia University.”
Prof. Wightman allegedly engaged in "a “consensual one-time fantasy encounter” involving bondage and a woman he met on an Internet dating site." Apparently the RCMP were called to investigate an allegation of sexual assault, but no charges were laid. Because of the investigation, he informed his employer, who "referred to a section of the university's code of conduct that states employees shall not “engage in community or personal activities in which there could be a conflict with the best interest of the university.”" The firing is now the subject of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit

The obvious response, that what an individual does on their own time is none of their employer's business may be valid, but perhaps no longer consistent with today's world. A report filed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers notes, "the termination of any employee who is innocent of criminal behaviour, but of whose personal beliefs and behaviours the administration might disapprove, is an extraordinary breach of employer-employee relations." The Association's opinion is founded in an Industrial Age conception of organization, in which one's work is quite apart from one's private life. A person is paid for what they do, what they produce, the time they spend on a task, or for an exchange of commodities - goods, services, or combinations thereof. The employer's control of an employee's activities and behaviours extends to the limit of that economic exchange agreement, and no further. Today, employers try to exert behavioural control through the use of employer-provided tools, including computers and network access, even when employer-time is not an issue. Many people, including me, find extending behavioural control beyond the confines of the workplace, and work hours, to be, at the very least, inappropriate, and highly problematic. My private life is... well... private! And certainly none of my employer's business - in both senses of that phrase.

This behaviour on the part of employers is only indirectly explained using a conventional conception of the purposeful organization - that is, the idea that an organization exists to accomplish something among a group of people. If the individual in question performs their duties appropriately, and does nothing inappropriate on the job, the organization's purpose is fulfilled. Pushing the limits of this idea a bit, organizations justify extending their behavioural control beyond the workplace by putting forward the theory that outside-the-workplace behaviours in certain circumstances reduce the individual's effectiveness inside-the-workplace, or reduce the effectiveness of the organization's marketing efforts, or create an ineffective, inconsistent or unsafe workplace environment. In my opinion, this argument is specious at best in most instances.

Most often, the organization falls back to a position of "but this will make us look bad," or variations thereof. Whether that argument is valid with respect to employment law in an instance such as that of Prof. Wightman is a separate matter - and now a matter for the court to decide. What it does demonstrate is the action of Identity Valence: that an individual constructs their identity partly on the basis of their associations with organizations in which they are members, and an organization constructs its identity partly on the basis of its individual and collective associations with its members (be they individuals or other organizations).

Acadia University's self-construction of identity does not, I presume, include (consensual) bondage, enactment of sexual fantasies, and spanking. (For that, you have to go elsewhere.) This limitation on the nature of Acadia's Identity valence relationship with its members creates some obvious and problematic tensions with respect to both the boundaries of employment law, and the rest of the individual's life. (This is in Canada; in most American states, individuals are employed "at will," which means wrongful dismissal is a foreign concept in most U.S. locales.)

I'm not saying that I agree with Acadia's decision in the matter of Professor Wightman; I don't. But I certainly understand the university's action based on a Valence Theory reading of the case. I would suggest that a useful answer to such cases comes from examining the interactions between Identity valence, and the other valences with respect to, for example, kinky behaviour in a private, off-campus, place. If the behaviours do not impinge on the connections between Identity and Economic, Knowledge, Socio-Psychological, and Ecological valences, no employment action should be taken. Otherwise, the organization may well be within its rights to terminate employment. It becomes a far more challenging and subtle case to adjudicate, but certainly this approach is more consistent with living in a UCaPP world.

One more aspect to note here: As I suggested in an earlier post, the more bureaucratic an organization is, the fewer interactions there are among the valences. Terminating an employee for violating the Identity valence relationship without examining the implications with respect to interactions among the other valences may do the organization more reputation damage than not. Specifically, it would be a sure sign of bureaucratic lack of thinking and judgement on the part of an employer, in this case, Acadia University. And tell me, would you want to go to, or send your daughter or son to, a university that prides itself on lack of thinking and judgement?

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Mark said...

An interesting and thoughtful analysis but one which appears to be based on two incorrest assumptions. At least, the assumptions seem to be incorrect based on the report published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers that is referred to (You can download the report, its only a dozen pages, from http://caut.ca/uploads/WightmanReport.pdf )

The first inconsistency is that it seems that Dr. Wightman did NOT arrange his tryst via a university computer: The report says it was his own computer, from his home, via his own internet service provider. The university later asserted that he had engaged in "highly inappropriate communications" using his university computer but apparently has refused to provide any information about what, when, or where those communications were or seek any explanation of them.

Second, a Valence Theory reading of the case depends on the assumption that the employee's behavior was publicly disclosed. In this case, there dosen't seem to have been any disclosure of any aspect of the allegation or investigation until Dr. Wightman filed his suit, which looks like it was ten months after he was fired. With no disclosure, even the "this will make us look bad" argument fails.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment, mark (a different Mark than me, the host of the blog).

I based my post on the information in the Globe and Mail article, which is, of course, among the sources that will inform the public of Prof. Wightman's situation.

Personally, I think the allegation of using the employer-issued computer to arrange his extra-curricular activities, so to speak, is a red-herring excuse to enable the firing to have any possibility of standing. Legally, I think Acadia hasn't got a hope in the lawsuit. From Acadia's moralistic perspective, it seems that they assumed some sort of moral-guilt-by-association with Prof. Wightman's sexual fantasies, without realizing that in taking the action they did, they have become ethically, and quite possibly legally, guilty with respect to his employment. And, of course, one cannot forget the damage to both Prof. Wightman's and the university's reputations, since the national publicity of this case would not have occurred had Acadia not fired him in the first place.