There are a few long-standing, common sense rules to remember if you want to keep your job.
Never beat the boss at golf. Never fail to laugh at his jokes. Never yawn when he's telling stories about his adorable kids. Never take his parking spot. And, oh yeah, don't go to the newspaper and say something that challenges his agenda and supports his competition.
That's exactly what Jeffrey Nielsen, the adjunct BYU philosophy professor, did earlier this month. He wrote a guest column for the Salt Lake Tribune in which he opposed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' stated endorsement of the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
The church is BYU's owner and Nielsen's employer.
The BYU philosophy department fired Nielsen because, as a spokesperson said, the column "publicly contradicted and opposed an official statement by the First Presidency. Such contradiction is in violation of university policy."
The firing produced some outrage in the form of e-mails and letters to the editor, etc. We've been down this road before. It's not the first time BYU has pink-slipped some outspoken faculty member.
This time opponents say the LDS Church is advocating blind obedience and suppressing free thinking in academia. I think, therefore I am fired. They take this as an opportunity to criticize the church for its stand on gay marriage.
Nielsen seems like a thoughtful, sincere man with deep convictions. He doesn't think of himself as a rebel, and he seems surprised that he has become an unwitting cause celebre who has strangers eager to embrace a defector from the other side and advance their cause. He says he doesn't even know any gay people, except those who have contacted him recently because of his column. And he says he very much wants to be a member in good standing of the LDS Church.
But Nielsen crossed a line the one drawn by his boss. The First Presidency of the LDS Church announced support of a constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage and asked members to contact their senators to urge their support. Nielsen wrote that that was wrong. "I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral," he wrote.
He was fired. End of story, thanks for playing.
If this happened in any other setting, nobody would have been surprised or outraged. Since when are employees allowed to question, correct or contradict their employers, especially in a public forum? Not only that, but since when are employees allowed to go to bat for the employer's opponent while identifying themselves with that employer?
This is called biting the hand that feeds you.
Some things you'll never see or hear in the media:
"Ford does have a better idea; I wouldn't drive a Chevy if they gave one to me." Chevrolet regional manager.
"Don't support Republicans; get out and vote for Democrats." Republican senator.
"If you eat at McDonald's, you'll turn into a tub of goo; I'd eat at Burger King." McDonald's store manager.
When you play for a team, you're supposed to be on their side. Terrell Owens created a public furor when he ripped the Philadelphia Eagles (his employer) and his teammates (co-workers). The Eagles dumped him. If he had something to say, it should have been behind closed doors, at which point the boss probably would have told him to take it next door.
Contrary to recent popular opinion, LDS Church members are free to speak their views, whatever they might be. The LDS Church didn't flinch when Mormon Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid publicly opposed the same constitutional amendment that Nielsen criticized.
But it becomes a different matter if they are employees of the church and represent themselves as such when they express points of view that are contrary to their employer's interests. No employer would pay someone who was hurting their own agenda.
Nielsen himself wondered if he could have kept his job if he hadn't affiliated himself with the university in the column. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that," he said, without intending understatement.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].