With the growing intensity of business competition, organizations become increasingly concerned about the effects employee behaviors may have on their corporate image. Contemporary businesses invent sophisticated rules and complex procedures in their striving to minimize the risks employees may potentially pose to their strategic position. The striving of most organizations to secure themselves from employee-related failures is quite understandable. However, the actions to which businesses are willing to resort just to protect their reputation and market position also uncover serious ethical controversies, privacy being the most serious one. Where do legitimate concerns of organizations end, giving place to employee privacy? This question does not seem to have a universal, definite answer. What is clear is that most employees in the 21st century are expected to be more responsible, transparent, and accountable in their decisions, even if they are made in out-of-job settings. Simultaneously, organizations should improve their law and ethics awareness to ensure that employee rights to privacy are not compromised. Speaking about Mrs. Petitt, the Board of Education did not violate her right to privacy, when her sexual preferences were made public. Mrs. Petitt herself launched the deadly spiral. The mere fact that the teacher and her husband agreed to participate in two local television shows to discuss the principles of sexual liberation created a profitable ground for professional and public discontent (Shaw, 2010). Mrs. Petitt who appeared on television could not be certain that no one would recognize her; nor could she ignore the consequences, to which her public behaviors could potentially lead. Moreover, the teacher definitely knew that oral copulation was illegal in California at that time (Shaw, 2010). She could anticipate the risks her sexual behaviors posed to her personal and professional image. Still, she decided that sexual liberation in private life was more important than ethical integrity and moral advantage in the system of public schooling. The Board of Education did not violate her right to privacy, because it did not suspect Mrs. Petitt of anything that could jeopardize her career. She violated the law. She was arrested for sexual misconduct. Whether or not the incident was a sufficient ground to dismiss Mrs. Petitt is another question, but it is clear that the Board of Education investigated the case and acted within the boundaries prescribed by the fundamental principles of law and ethics.
The Board of Education did have the right to fire Mrs. Petitt for two reasons. First, the system of public schooling is legitimately concerned about the effects, which teachers’ private behaviors have on education. As mentioned earlier, teachers operate in a challenging professional environment, which makes their behaviors and decisions particularly visible to all community stakeholders. Vacca (2005) confirms that the Board of Education had the right to fire Mrs. Petitt, since her behaviors would impair the effectiveness of the entire school system or, at least, the educational institution where Mrs. Petitt used to work. The history of schooling in the U.S. knows a good precedent, when a male secondary school teacher was dismissed on the basis that he was a member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, and the information about his membership went viral (Vacca, 2005). The court concluded that the publicity surrounding the teacher’s behaviors disrupted the atmosphere of morality and ethics in the school system, while also undermining the trust students and parents used to hold in their teacher (Vacca, 2005). Consequently, the man could not continue his professional work without compromising the basic principles of law and ethics. Second, even though state laws set explicit boundaries on how the quality and consistency of teacher behaviors should be measured, the criteria used to judge teachers’ workplace performance go well beyond their on-the-job conduct (Vacca, 2005). The Board of Education did not consider Mrs. Petitt to be unfit for teaching, because she was a bad teacher; rather, her moral integrity, publicity, and effects on students were taken into account.
Objectively, Petitt’s behavior was neither unprofessional nor immoral. The Board of Education also did not have a single reason to complain about the quality of her workplace performance (Shaw, 2010). However, I still believe that she was unfit to teach, since she severely undermined the atmosphere of morality and ethics maintained by the public school system. Mrs. Petitt was unfit to teach, because the ability to teach is not limited to the knowledge of instructional design and motivation to deliver comprehensive learning in the classroom. Much of the success of the teaching profession relies on the morality and ethics of teachers’ behaviors. Petitt was not able to prioritize her decisions and behaviors. She was determined to satisfy her sexual desires in ways that violated then law and made the risks of disclosure and publicity particularly pronounced. Lumpkin (2007) is right that teachers must possess sound moral reasoning skills to help their students distinguish between the right and wrong. A teacher who cannot define clear priorities and balance her private and professional needs can hardly become a good role model for her students.
This being said, if teachers have good performance inside the classroom, they should also be held to a higher moral standard outside the classroom. Otherwise, they will hardly be fit to work in the system of education. Teaching is a public profession. The success of the entire process depends on whether teachers as public employees can maintain a delicate balance of their interests as personalities, citizens, and professionals who are entitled to promote the efficacy of the entire school system (Fulmer, 2010). Also important is presenting a compelling image of integrity and ethical conduct to students in the classroom – a teacher who follows different standards of behavior in professional and private environments will send a message of deception, disguise, and ethical misconduct to students, persuading them to act in a similar fashion. Finally, the success of education rests with the ability of teachers to build and maintain trusting relationships with all community stakeholders. “Public trust not only involves a teacher’s personal conduct, but also the interaction of the entire community” (Vacca, 2005, p. 3). Only a teacher who displays exemplary behaviors within and outside the classroom can sustain effective relationships with the community, thus increasing the effectiveness of the learning process.
Among others, the following behaviors would be considered as immoral or unethical for a teacher: engaging in sexual relationships with a student; discriminating against a student on the basis of gender or race; promoting the use of drugs or selling drugs in the classroom; engaging students in religious rituals in the classroom; and using physical force against students. Some of these unethical behaviors were listed by Shaw (2010). All these behaviors once again emphasize the need for professional teachers to exercise good self-control (Lumpkin, 2007). Teachers must maintain professional relationships with their students, while promoting the spirit of fairness and justice in the classroom. Any practices that threaten the safety and security of students and disrupt the process of learning can be regarded as either unethical or illegal. The actions listed above also distort the sacred image of a teacher. They undermine the public trust in public schooling and violate the principles and goals of effective teaching in the classroom. No one says that teachers are constrained in their private choices. However, they are expected to be more reasonable in their behaviors and decisions. The moment a person decides to become a teacher, he or she also agrees to act morally and ethically within and outside of the classroom. The case of Mrs. Petitt once again confirms the complexity of the teaching profession and the ethical challenges that face teachers in their everyday work.
To conclude, teachers function at the intersection of law and ethics. Given the effects their behaviors have on the effectiveness and function of the entire system, it comes as no surprise that school are legitimately concerned about the things teachers do outside the classroom. The case above indicates that public school teachers have the right to privacy. Nevertheless, they should be more accountable for their off-the-job conduct and preserve their ethical and moral integrity, even when they are not at work.
- Fulmer, E.H. (2010). Privacy expectations and protections for teachers in the Internet age. Duke Law & Technology Review, 14, 1-24.
- Lumpkin, A. (2007). Teachers as role models: Teaching character and moral virtues. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 79(2), 45-49.
- Shaw, W.H. (2010). Business ethics: A textbook with cases. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
- Vacca, R.S. (2005). Public trust and the role of classroom teachers. CEPI Education Law Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.cepi.vcu.edu/media/university- relations/cepi/pdfs/newsletters/2004-05/2005-3EdLawNewsletter.pdf.