Every week a column, The Ethicist, appears in the in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. This column is sort of a “Dear Abby” where writers solicit input on how to resolve ethical questions. In the most recent edition of the column, Mowing Under the Influence, The Ethicist takes a Green Factors approach to helping an anonymous homeowner resolve the issue whether to continue to contact for the labor of a person with a criminal history as a landscaper. The Ethicist suggests following a course many employers take in weighing the job to be done, the criminal offense involved, etc.
MOWING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
I’ve been using the same landscaper for a few years now. On a recent morning, he and I happened to be at the gas station at the same time. He was filling up one of his trucks. As he started the engine, I noticed that he had a Breathalyzer device attached to the ignition — similar to the kind issued to individuals who have been convicted of D.W.I. I am starting to have concerns about my safety and my property. Should I ask the landscaper about this? Is it grounds enough to dismiss him? NAME WITHHELD, WHITE PLAINS [NY]
First of all, I have no idea why you think a D.W.I. arrest would make this person unfit to tend to your garden. Are you afraid he will get loaded and overprune the petunias? Second, he seems to have the Breathalyzer device attached to the same vehicle he uses for work, so he can’t even show up unless he’s legally sober (I suppose he could theoretically bring a six-pack in his lunchbox and get drunk while he worked — but then he wouldn’t be able to start the truck and drive home). If you want to ask him about his arrest record, that is your right as a person. And if you both had signed a contract when he was hired, and its language included some kind of morality clause, you would be legally justified in firing him. But I see no reason that you would fire a man you’ve employed “for a few years” over a crime that has no relationship to what you’ve hired him to do and only surfaced because you were peeping inside the cab of his vehicle.
Eric J. Ellman is Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) in Washington, DC. He also served for eight months as Interim President and CEO of the Association. More