Big game, big protest and bigger consequences

Big game, big protest and bigger consequences

While the First Amendment gives the freedom to protest, an at-will employment relationship means it's necessary to tread lightly.
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Sep 19, 2017

Shutterstock.comLink Animal Clinic is a small, well-respected veterinary hospital in an upscale suburb. The staff of two veterinarians, three receptionists and five technicians is compassionate, devoted and skilled. The clinic is in a lease-held shopping center with a diverse assortment of tenants.

In addition to offering standard veterinary services, Link Animal Clinic's staff thinks it's important to have a positive footprint in the humane community. They support and assist the local shelters whenever they can.

A new tenant recently moved into the shopping center. It is part of a nationally franchised fast food chain. In addition to serving pretty good food, the chain's founder displays himself in both words and pictures as an accomplished big game hunter. This does not sit well with one of the animal clinic's head technicians.

She posts a sign in her car window asking shopping center customers not to patronize the restaurant, and she starts parking her car in the shopping center's common parking lot for all to see. In addition, she starts a protest march to alert shopping center customers of the chain restaurant owner's pride in killing big game. Finally, at every opportunity, she tells the clinic's clients her feelings about the restaurant's big game hunting policy.

Dr. Link, the clinic owner, does not agree with his technician's protest methods. He meets with his technician to tell her that her protests were creating issues with the other tenants. The landlord asks that the protests stop, and the restaurant's management threatens a hostile tenant-to-tenant relationship unless the harassment ceases.

Dr. Link's technician says she feels that the restaurant ownership stands for beliefs and behaviors that run counter to her commitment as a pet healthcare advocate. She says that she understands the tenant issues, but her right to free speech and her principles preclude her from stopping her protests.

Dr. Link acknowledges that he too has contempt for big game hunters, but displaying that disapproval in the manner used by his technician is not acceptable in his veterinary clinic environment. He understands her feelings but he is obligated to look at the "big picture." Tenant conflicts and potential negative financial impact on his practice require that he insist she stop. Both the veterinarian and his technician are unhappy when the meeting ends.

The following week Dr. Link calls his technician into his office and tells her he is making a change. He is terminating her employment. She asks if this is because of her attitude and actions concerning the neighboring restaurant, but he only replies that he is making a change and wishes her well.

The technician is furious. She is only standing up for what she believes in. She feels her boss acted unprofessionally and she files a complaint with the state board charging unprofessional and unethical behavior.

The board determines that Dr. Link did not act in an unprofessional manner, as she was an at-will employee. As long as she was not terminated for reasons related to race, religion or sexual orientation, Dr. Link can terminate any employee at any time. Dr. Link meets with his staff and first explains his negative feelings about his restaurant neighbor's big game hunting advocacy. He goes on to say that there is a time and place for protest and this is not it. Finally, as a cautionary note, Dr. Link tactfully tells his staff that this workplace is not a democracy. Ultimately he decides policy and accepts the successes and failures of his decisions.

Do you agree with Dr. Link? We would like to know. Send us an email at [email protected].

Dr. Rosenberg's response:

I agree with the premise that Dr. Link has every right to both terminate his technician and determine workplace policies concerning employee demeanor. I disagree with his inflexible "my way or the highway" response. He could have offered alternative protest suggestions that would have satisfied both his valuable technician and his onsite tenant conflict. For example, the clinic could make a contribution to an anti-big-game-hunting charity or provide relevant educational information for client consumption. Veterinarians walk a narrow line around small business success, animal advocacy and maintaining staff morale. Here is hoping we all maintain our balance.