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Ozzie Guillen, Free Speech, and Corporate Values

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Miami Marlins  manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended five games by the team for making the comment that he “loves Fidel Castro”  in a Time Magazine interview.  Guillen apologized in a tearful press conference, explaining that what he mean was that he admired the way Castro has stayed in power despite the fact that he is hated by much of Cuba’s population.

What amazes me is the number of people who feel that Guillen was exercising his Constitutional Right to Free Speech, and therefore the Marlins have no right to discipline him.

Excuse me?  There is no constitutional right to work for a particular employer, and there is no prohibition against a private employer suspending or firing an employee for something they say.

Working for a company is a tacit agreement to follow the company’s values, whatever they may be.  Ozzie Guillen works for a company whose customers hate Castro, and therefore praising Castro goes against Marlin’s values.  I am not going to weigh in on whether Guillen should have said what he did.  But the Marlins are a business, and they suspended him to show their customers that “The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized.”  Part of adopting company values is accepting the rewards and punishments that come with that value system.

I am reminded of something a CEO told me about running a company.   “Your life is not your own. You are driven by being a lot of things  that are broader, about marketing the company to the financial community.”  Guillen in many ways like the CEO of the Marlins.  He is the public face of the organization.  He is paid millions of dollars by the team, and for that money he forfeits his right to speak in public in a way that the company doesn’t like.  What applies to Guillen applies to executives and employees throughout the corporate world.

In fact, I think I once lost a job because I called out someone powerful in a meeting.  To be honest, I didn’t really mind being let go, and I understood that I was putting my job on the line when I spoke up.  Whether this was right or wrong of the company is immaterial.  (And I should say that I have no direct evidence that this is why I was included in the next RIF.)  A company is most effective when everyone is on the same page, and it could be argued that someone who publicly dissents from the leadership should be let go because they are taking away from the common purpose.  I know there are a lot of Harvard Business Review articles saying that stifling dissent is a bad business strategy, and I agree.  Nevertheless, retaliation for speaking out is reality that employees  deal with every day.

Different companies have different tolerances for criticism of the company officers.   But few if any companies will tollerate an employee who speaks or acts in a way that is harmful to the company bottom line.  Ozzie Guillen’s suspension is a great example of the arbitrariness of company values.  Guillen made similar comments about admiring Castro two years ago when he was manager of the Chicago White Sox.  Admiring Castro does not conflict with White Sox values because few White Sox fans really care about Castro.  But publicly admiring Castro does conflict with Marlins values, because Marlins fans care a lot.

I suspect that if Ozzie Guillen paid more attention to people-first values,  he would have been more sensitive to the feelings of the Cuban-American community about Castro.  Plus, someone with strong people-first values would not admire a dictator for his ability to stay in power.  Some people around the world admire Castro for providing universal health care and a good education to his people.  But admire him for staying in power?  C’mon Man!