Case: Off-Duty Conduct

  Read the case study below and answer these 2 questions. Add your opinion about the choices and decisions being made—if this was your company would you make this choice?  What would you do differently?   

The small Southwestern city of Happy Hollow, with a population of approximately 17,000 people, is a modern bedroom community that is located just a 15-minute drive away from a major city. Happy Hollow maintains a fire department with one fire station serving an area of 12 square miles. It is staffed with 15 full-time firefighters and 15 volunteer firefighters. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) represents all permanent, full-time employees of Happy Hollow’s fire department.

Four years ago, Tim Nelson was hired as a firefighter and licensed paramedic for Happy Hollow’s fire department. Previously, he worked for 3 years as a firefighter for another small city. After getting off work at 4:30 p.m. one evening, he joined a friend at a restaurant in the major city a 15- or 20-minute drive from where he lives and works. Nelson and his friend had dinner and several drinks at the restaurant and stayed there until after midnight, when Nelson drove the friend home and then started on the drive to his own home.

Upon receiving calls at 12:43 a.m. about someone driving erratically in a pickup truck at a high rate of speed, Happy Hollow’s police department dispatched a police officer to investigate. Officer Brian Jones observed someone driving the described truck at an excessive rate of speed. He followed for approximately one-half mile while observing erratic driving before stopping the truck. Officer Jones detected a strong odor of alcohol coming from the pickup truck when he approached it. Officer Jones then recognized the driver as firefighter Nelson, who appeared fatigued, with red, watery eyes. He noticed that Nelson had difficulty performing the simple task of retrieving his driver’s license and proof of insurance coverage, and his speech was slurred. Officer Jones concluded that Nelson appeared to be intoxicated. Meanwhile, another Ford pickup truck and a second city patrol vehicle driven by Sgt. David Martinez arrived on the location. The driver and passenger in the other pickup advised the police officers that the truck driven by Nelson had sideswiped their vehicle before being stopped by Officer Jones, and they also said that Nelson had failed to stop after the accident. The collision caused damage to both trucks, ripping the mirrors from the passenger side of the truck driven by Nelson and the driver’s side of the other truck.

Officer Jones determined that there was probable cause for arrest and advised Nelson that he was being arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) and leaving the scene of an accident. Upon arrival at the police station, Nelson elected to refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer test for measuring his blood alcohol. He was cited for a DUI and leaving the scene of an accident resulting in property damage to another vehicle. He was booked into jail and stayed for a few hours before he was released on bond.

Firefighter and paramedic Tim Nelson was subsequently placed on administrative leave with pay while the matter was being investigated. Following a 3-day investigation, the fire department held a predisciplinary hearing where Nelson had an opportunity to further describe his version of what had happened leading up to his early-morning arrest. Nelson described feeling a sudden jolt when his truck hit something while he was driving home, but he claimed that he did not know what he had hit or if he had hit anything at all. Nelson acknowledged that he had too much to drink that evening and that he should have had someone drive him home. He said that although the incident had occurred while he was off duty, he was willing to do anything necessary to keep his job.

Fire Department Chief Calvin Moore pointed out that he had known that Nelson had been previously arrested for a DUI while working as a firefighter for the other small city but that he had hired Nelson as a firefighter for the Happy Hollow Fire Department anyway. Chief Moore explained that he had already given Nelson a second chance when he hired him, and he was unwilling to give Nelson a third chance. Chief Moore stated that Nelson had violated several rules and policies of the fire department and had failed in his obligation to the public as a firefighter and paramedic by not stopping to check to see if he had injured anyone in the collision that he caused that night. The incident also garnered significant media attention, including reports in Happy Hollow’s local newspaper and on at least one news report from a local television station—thus potentially undermining the public’s trust in the Happy Hollow Fire Department. For these reasons, Chief Moore informed Nelson that his employment was being terminated “for cause.”

The union filed a grievance alleging that Nelson’s punishment was too severe since the incident occurred while he was off duty. The union requested Nelson’s reinstatement with punishment, such as a reasonable suspension without pay and a warning. The city’s management responded that they had a duty to ensure the public trust in the fire department. They also said that the city’s rules and policies, as written in the union–management labor agreement, stated, “Employees shall conduct themselves off duty in such a manner as to show respect as a member of the fire department. Conduct unbecoming a member of the Happy Hollow Fire Department will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

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