Ray Rice, seen with wife, Janay Palmer (Image: Instagram)

The Baltimore Ravens terminated their employee, Ray Rice, after a video documented him punching his then bride-to-be, Janay Palmer, unconscious. The NFL followed suit and suspended him “indefinitely.” The 24-hour news cycle is packed with opinions, but the focus here is whether an employee can be terminated for offsite misconduct and if yes, under what circumstances? Here, Rice was under a contract with the team and the NFL. They cited the “morality clause” violation as the basis for releasing him. Many commentators believe that this was a “too little, too late” action which may tarnish the league’s brand.

What about your employees? If you learned that a valued employee violated the law or did something unethical outside of work, how would you approach it? Here are 4 things to consider:

1. Understand The “At-Will” Employee Rule And Its Exception. Generally, employees are “at will” and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides the exception to this rule–an employer may not terminate employees because they are members of a protected class (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, age). Here, the issue is whether you can terminate someone for cause that is unrelated to his or her work related performance.

2. Address Your Morality Policies In Your Employment Manual. Even though an employee may be “at-will”, it is always recommended that an employer explicitly document its workplace policies in writing to preclude a wrongful termination claim. Though non-binding, employment manuals set the policies and procedures by which you run your business. The manual outlines the conditions of employment. Thus, if you want to state that an employee must comply with local, state and federal laws, both on and offsite, write that in your handbook. If you want to have a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence, again, “make it plain” in your manual.

3. The Misconduct Must Not Interfere with the Public’s Trust In the Company. The reputation of a business is its lifeline. Clearly, customers patronize businesses they trust and with whom they share values. If an employee does something that violates those implied values, customers may no longer support the business.

4. Employers Must Handle the Investigation Thoroughly, Yet Swiftly. The way the NFL handled the incident was problematic, at best. The Ravens and NFL knew or should have known about both the incident and the evidence. Yet, it took nearly eight months to appropriately punish their employee. That conduct dealt a blow of its own to the league. By dragging their feet and letting TMZ lead the investigation, the NFL lost credibility as an organization in the public’s eye. It was a clear lesson on how not to handle a sensitive personnel matter.

Employment matters are always sensitive, serious and filled with difficult (and often competing) factors. Companies are viewed as leaders in their community and the country at large. It is important for them to balance their need to be profitable with their ability to care about the lives of those in the community that they serve.

Nicole Cober, Esq. is a partner at Cober Johnson, a law firm focusing on trademarks, brand licensing and small biz consulting. She is a former small business owner of the award-winning chain, Soul … Day Spa and Salon. She is also a legal consultant for Washington D.C.’s NewsChannel 8. Follow her on Twitter @CoberJohnson and like her on FB @CoberJohnson. Visit her website at www.coberjohnson.com.

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