Late last week, Nick Solares, the Restaurant Editor of the food site Eater.com, was placed on leave after apologizing for being involved in the racist punk scene of the 1980s. This is a horrible precedent, for all of us.
Let us establish a few things right up front:
- After people began circulating photos of Nick Solares on the skinhead scene, Solares publicly apologized for participating in that scene when he was a teenager, and wrote that he “fully disavow[s] the bigoted and dehumanizing ideologies they represent.”
- Nick Solares’ job is writing about food and restaurants.
- We all disagree with the ideology of Nazis and skinheads.
With those facts in mind, I would like to put forward a very simple standard for employers: Workplace personnel decisions should be made based on behavior that directly affects the workplace. Workplace personnel decisions—hiring, firing, promotions, demotions, suspensions, discipline, being placed on leave—should not be made based upon things people do or believe in their personal time. This is a crucial standard that prevents your employer from unilaterally running your life.
Nick Solares’ job is covering restaurants. Were he an active neo-Nazi who only covered white restaurants, that would be a relevant workplace issue. Were he an active neo-Nazi who spouted white supremacy at work and advocated the murder of his non-white coworkers, that would be a relevant workplace issue. But neither of these are the issue at hand. The issue at hand is that Nick Solares used to be, many years ago, a skinhead punk, and now he is not, and he has specifically disavowed those beliefs. It is natural to have a visceral reaction to any mention of Nazi ideology, and to want to destroy it, push it away, wipe it out. Any honest reading of the current situation, though, tells us that Nick Solares’ teenage beliefs are not a workplace issue at Eater.com. (Eddie Huang’s thoughtful essay on Solares’ case is a critique of the New York food media as a whole rather than a call for Solares to be punished.) There is no reason for him to be placed on leave, paid or otherwise.
Because most people find racist ideology so vile, Solares has not garnered much public sympathy. He should. He could be you. And if he were you, you would be outraged at your employer’s behavior. Perhaps you are a Green Party member in Kansas who works for a Trump-supporting boss. Perhaps you were a rapper when you were younger and recorded songs with violent, sexist lyrics. Perhaps you are a woman who’s spoken openly about having an abortion. Perhaps you are a Communist on the weekends. Perhaps you did stupid things in college, and there are pictures. As long as these things do not directly hurt your workplace performance, they are none of your employer’s business. Likewise, the fact that your coworker dislikes your political beliefs or something you did or thought in your past is not a reason to discipline you at work, unless you are actively doing something to hurt that coworker. The very existence of someone you disagree with does not constitute assault. You are free to dislike your coworker; you may even feel unsafe due to your coworker’s personal beliefs; but you are not entitled to demand that they be removed from their job for something they did unrelated to work. The relevant issue here is not how you feel about an ideology that Nick Solares used to subscribe to; the issue is that if Nick Solares is doing his job, he should not be placed on leave because his employer dislikes an ideology that he used to subscribe to. This is a line that must be defended. If it is not, your employer will gain an omniscient ability to dictate every facet of your life in exchange for your measly paycheck.
Maybe you would never be a skinhead punk. Maybe you cannot imagine your kindly boss ever ousting you from your job for your thoroughly reasonable political opinions. But we create principles to deal with all cases: the unfair bosses, the unpopular people, the supporters of causes that others find repugnant. (A former neo-Nazi in the New York media scene has something in common with, say, a Black Lives Matter protester who works as a schoolteacher in Alabama: they have both demonstrated political views that may prove unpopular to their employers, and they are both entitled to do so without receiving workplace repercussions.) There are plenty of legitimate ways to debate the merits of racist ideologies, and how and whether a past adherence to such ideologies reflects on a person in later life. Being placed on leave by your employer after a public backlash to something that does not directly affect your work is not one of those ways. Your employer is not the judge and jury of your personal political beliefs. Your employer is someone who pays you money to do a job. Allowing employers greater power than that—power to enforce standards of their own choosing about our behavior outside of work—is far scarier than any 1980s skinhead punk show.