People at Work: Fired for Playing Fantasy Football, or for Being 26 Years Old?

Your heart has to go out to Cameron Pettigrew, losing a job in this economy. The 26-year-old Fidelity Investments employee, along with three others, was fired in October for violating a company policy regarding gambling while participating in fantasy football, a virtual game that utilizes real-life statistics from football players to form fantasy teams and leagues.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%Employed at the company's office in Westlake, Texas, Pettigrew, who was the commissioner of his fantasy league, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he knew his company had a policy against playing fantasy football while at the office, but it was poorly communicated and ignored by leadership. Pettigrew sent no fantasy football emails at work, he said. But investigators did find two instant messages that had related material.

Pettigrew told the newspaper his firing was out of proportion for the offense committed, which Fidelity described as "Violation of Company Gambling Policy Involving Fantasy Football."

"Firing a guy for being in a $20 fantasy league? Pettigrew said. "Let's be honest; that's a complete overreaction."

So was Fidelity's response overly harsh? That depends on whom you ask. Some workplace experts have long argued that sports-related activities, both real and virtual, reduce worker output.

Chicago outplacement-firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates that last year employers lost $615 million a week in lost productivity due to fantasy football, despite gains in workplace morale and camaraderie. CEO John Challenger told Reuters the Fidelity case was the first he had heard of involving workers disciplined for participating in the game. "Maybe it is the start of a backlash," Challenger said, "but it's like trying to beat back the tide."

When employees are fired for such seemingly minor infractions it's likely because the company has well-defined policies on unacceptable behavior, says John J. Haggerty, managing director of executive education at Cornell University's ILR School. For example, company policy may state, "gambling using company computers is unacceptable and may result in termination on first offense."

More typically, Haggerty says, such infractions are dealt with through progressive discipline, first resulting in a verbal or written warning. Companies typically give employees an opportunity to redeem themselves, he says, by not engaging in the behavior again before terminating them.

Nevertheless, as Internet availability has become more common in the workplace, employers have found themselves on a slippery slope in determining which content is acceptable and which is not, the least of which is not pornography. Faced with a seemingly endless number of scenarios that could result in violations and in an effort to remain consistent, employers have simply adopted zero-tolerance policies.

The larger issue is that such behavior is largely generational, says Seattle-based workplace expert Mary Mitchell. "We have more people now in the workplace who are 'millennials'," she says. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are those Americans born from 1980 to 1995.

Most of them grew up not knowing what it's like to live without computers and constant stimuli from several sources at once, says Mitchell, an expert in leadership development and succession planning. In younger workers' minds, it isn't clear that any controversy exists in engaging in personal business or leisure while at work.

"It appears to me more of a culture clash than anything else," she says.

Pettigrew's story has an additional dimension because Fidelity had a strict prohibition on gambling, Mitchell says. "It appears that the employees involved had absolutely no idea that what they did is anything less than appropriate behavior in today's workplace and society."

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