Chris Kluwe’s release spurs employment law questions

Wisconsin football fans know that the Minnesota Vikings released punter Chris Kluwe earlier this week although he had a year left on his contract. While the Vikings’ management have claimed that Kluwe was cut so that the team could add a more competitive punter to its roster, a number of people–even the state’s governor–have questioned whether the fact that Kluwe has become an outspoken gay rights advocate had anything to do with the decision.

While professional sports franchises do not exactly follow the same employment law standards as other employers–for example, they frequently fire players for younger, cheaper models–this controversy has brought to light some interesting legal issues.

Kluwe’s gay rights work took place off of the field, and the question of whether employers should have any control or reaction to their employees’ activities outside of the workplace has long been a topic of debate here in Wisconsin.

However, in Wisconsin, like in most states, the employee-employer relationship is at-will. This means that employers can fire employees for pretty much any reason as long as it does not violate any existing statutes. For example, an employer cannot legally fire a worker because of his or her religion, but it might be able to fire a worker for spreading a very negative impression of the employer–on a blog, for example. In certain cases, however, that type of speech is protected by law.

In both Wisconsin and Minnesota it is illegal for employers to discriminate against workers based on their political activity.

And even though employers can fire employees for a number of unfair but legal reasons related to nonwork behavior, it is generally not wise for them to do so. This is because it can generate a lot of negative publicity and ill-will toward a company. Earlier this year, for example, an Applebee’s restaurant fired a worker who posted a picture of a guest check on a social media site. Applebee’s said it did this because the posting violated the customer’s privacy. The high-profile firing, however, brought a significant public demand for the company to rehire the server.

In conclusion, this case is a reminder that employers may actually legally fire workers for their off-duty behavior in some cases. However, in many cases, the off-duty behavior in question is actually protected by a federal or state statute, which would make the firing illegal. Workers who have been fired, demoted or otherwise disciplined for something that does not seem work-related might benefit from talking to an employment law attorney about their rights.

Source: The Star Tribune, “Schafer: Off-hours activities can burn employees,” May 5, 2013

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