Can I Be Disciplined For Arguments Away From Work?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being disciplined over an argument with a coworker off from work:

I work for a media company in which I receive a discount on my personal cell phone bill for being employed by them. I am also given a company issued cell phone that I do not pay for. A coworker and I got into a disagreement on our personal phones where she deemed me as a liar. I responded with some adult language but not in an overly exaggerated way. the content was in no way threatening. I was not at work, it was my personal phone when this conversation started.

My coworker was at work but had texted me from her personal phone as well. I have since than received disciplinary action that has placed me on a final written warning for a 12 month period of time.

This disciplinary action will make me ineligible for any kind of raises or career advancements for the duration of the disciplinary action that was given to me. I explained to my employer that while at work I know I am required to act in a professional way and treat my coworkers with respect even if we have our differences. However, when I am not at work I cannot be disciplined for what I do or say in my personal time. They stated that it was a work related issue and it can cause work place tension so that they have the right to take action. Don’t I have any kind of protection under the free speech amendment? I do not feel that I should be disciplined at my workplace just because a coworker and I had a disagreement about a work-related issue outside of the workplace on personal cell phones and I used a few curse words. I am an adult and I feel like I was sticking up for myself and was not breaking any rules.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

I’m sorry, but the reality is that unless you have a contract or a work situation with rules about how discipline must be handled, your employers could dismiss you or discipline you without giving any specific reason. So, they can impose a sanction for an argument related to work, no matter where it occurred or what phone was used. I can understand your frustration about it, but your employer seems to have been correct that the matter could cause problems at work and thus is within their authority to handle. You may want to check with an attorney to see if there is some aspect to this situation that could be challenged. If you work to show that you are not an angry person and that this was an unusual situation, you will quickly rebuild from this one thing. Best wishes as you move forward.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.