Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dam Eagles R Screwed Up

As a lawyer who sometimes gets involved in employment law matters, a situation like that of Dan Leone could well end up on my desk. I mostly represent corporate clients, which includes counseling them about personnel issues. But I also do occasionally deal with issues on behalf of the terminated employee as well.

Dan Leone is the game-day employee who worked for the Eagles and was fired because he dissed the Eagles on his Facebook page for firing Brian Dawkins to the Broncos (along with the rest of Philly).

As was first reported by the Inky, Leone, a long time Eagles fan, had worked for the Eagles for 6 years as a game-day stadium employee at Lincoln Financial Field, despite his neurological disability that made his job as west gate chief difficult. However, as John Gonzalez notes, Cold Eagles sure are thin-skinned:

Last week, the Eagles fired Leone.

Like a lot of Philadelphians, Leone was upset when Dawkins became a Bronco. So he did what a 32-year-old does these days: He vented on Facebook. "Dan is [expletive] devastated about Dawkins signing with Denver. . .Dam Eagles R Retarted!!"

It was a rash, stupid thing to do, and Leone regretted it almost instantly.

"I shouldn't have put it up there," Leone said. "I was ticked off, and I let my emotions go, but I didn't offend any one person or target a specific individual. I was just upset that we lost such a great guy. Dawkins was one of my favorite players. I made a mistake."

Less than two days after posting the Dawkins remarks, Leone said, he was contacted by Leonard Bonacci, the team's director of event operations. According to Leone, Bonacci said they needed to talk about Leone's Facebook page, and Leone agreed. Leone - who deleted the comment - figured that the two would sit down and that he could apologize to Bonacci in person. But Leone said Bonacci never got back to him after that.

Two days later, Leone said, he received a call from Rachel Vitagliano, the team's guest services manager. Leone said she fired him over the phone. The conversation lasted less than 10 minutes.

No warning. No suspension. No face-to-face meeting. Just a quick call to tell Leone he'd been terminated.

"I tried putting in my case to Rachel," Leone said. "I told her I worked there for six years. I did whatever they asked. I only missed one Eagles game the entire time I worked there, and that was because I'm a Mummer. I told her it was my dream to work for the Eagles and that I'd never do anything like that again."

Leone said Vitagliano didn't want to hear it. He said that she told him he couldn't be trusted, that the post made the team look bad, and that the only way to resolve the situation was to fire him.

Of course, the story has been picked by not only by the local news, but has been covered by ESPN and other sports outlets, like NFL FanHouse, making the Eagles look worse. They have been blasted for their heavy-handedness in dealing with this relatively minor matter. See, e.g., "I want Joe Banner and Jeff Lurie to fail" and You thought Brian Dawkins was treated rough?. Brendan Calling provides the most scathing take, in The Philadelphia Eagles Are Bums:
OK, let’s review the Philadelphia Eagles for a few minutes, shall we?

Here’s a team that last won the Super Bowl… oh, right. They’ve NEVER won a Super Bowl.

The head coach embarrasses our city with his “family in crisis”, his home characterized as a “drug emporium” by the judge handing down sentencing. Later, one of the kids, britt, was busted for violating his bail violation…wait for it…”after police said they found 33 pills, including the painkiller hydrocodone, on him.” The other, Garrett, got sent up to the state pokey for smuggling 81 pills into the county lockup.

We all know that Philadelphia loaned the Eagles $8 million bucks when their chips were down. But when it came time to pay back, the Eagles came up with all sorts of excuses.

* * * *

The Eagles are the team that doesn’t care. Thanks for the $8 million Philly, now go fuck off. Hey Dan, thanks for making us look good for six years and working your ass off even though your legs are messed up, now go fuck off. Thanks for the stadium taxpayers, too bad we can’t actually win anything, so fuck off.

Bums. Nothing but a bunch of bums.

The case has also been picked up by several employment law blogs, since it raises an issue that's addressed by more & more by lawyers. As noted by the Ohio Employment Law Blog, Employee disloyalty and Facebook:
All over the Internet, the Eagles are taking a beating for Leone’s. For example, according to an ESPN.com poll, 80.5% believe the Eagles were not justified in firing Leone.

Let me take the other side. It may seem heavy-handed for the Eagles to take a stand against a part-time seasonal employee. If an employer wants to effectively enforce policy, it has to do so across the board. The Eagles are sending the message that it will not tolerate its employees publicly making negative statements about the organization. While some will consider it unfair for this message to be sent at Leone’s expense, this employer will be better served the next time, when it is a high level front office employee instead of a part-time stadium employee. In employment law, consistency is key, and to be consistent, someone always has to be first.
See also, Eagles Employee Gets Benched for Comment on Facebook Page.

This may be true generally, but this case is a tough one from the perspective of what's off limits for an employee to be able to express an opinion about. Leone's comments, while referring to the Eagles, weren't really about the team in the employer-sense. He wasn't discussing the team in a work-related manner -- his comments related to the Eagles from the perspective of a fan.

Obviously, we don't have all of the information about the matter, since the only official word provided is: "Through a representative, the Eagles said, "The only information we can share is that Dan was a seasonal game-day employee and not a full-time member of the Eagles staff."

Yet, based upon what wasn't said here, I also wonder whether the Eagles had a clear policy delineating what is considered to be inappropriate work-related comment related to use of social networking sites -- as to content related to work vs. content related to personal life. See Lawful Mining of Blogs on Social Networks. That is, the representative did not say that Leone had violated clear company policies, instead they said he was a seasonal part time employee. In other words, he was an "at will employee" who could be terminated at any time -- and they did it because they didn't like what he said, not because he was violating any rule. Certainly permissible, but clearly it was an overreaction to the "offense." In some sense, it's poetic justice that they are now getting a public dissing -- which is precisely what they were trying to avoid.

And the over-the-phone termination? What school of personnel management ever let that one get by? The only thing that could have been worse would have been to do it via email. The HR person who allowed that to happen is the employee who should be terminated, not Leone.

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