Reality TV stardom usually costs you both your privacy and dignity.Former hedge fund president Jason Colodne says his reality TV time cost him $55 million. That's the amount Colodne says he lost after his recent appearance on Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City ( GE) earned him a pink slip. Colodne was fired from his Wall Street firm -- Patriarch Partners -- after colleagues saw promos for the series, which according to Bravo, chronicles "the upper echelon of society where money and status are an essential way of life." Now Colodne is suing his former firm in federal court for $55 million, arguing that they terminated him for something he did on his private time. The firm counters by stating that Colodne never disclosed he was filming the series and officials were mortified by the "low-brow" program. "Can you imagine asking people to invest millions of dollars into a project when you're on a show that's basically a laughing stock?" says Hillary Richard, a lawyer for the firm. No matter the outcome, Colodne's misfortune holds a lesson for anyone who has ever dreamed of 15 minutes of fame: You can be fired for doing a reality show. Would your job be at risk if you went on ABC's The Bachelor ( DIS)? It could be if you are an "at-will employee," or a worker without a contract, which from a legal standpoint means you can quit or be terminated at any time for any reason. (As long as it's not discriminatory, for example, based on race or gender, or punishment for whistle-blowing.) "An employer can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, no reason and with no notice," says Richard Bales, a Northern Kentucky University law professor. That means if the boss doesn't like the shoes you wear, the gum you chew or your decision to compete on Big Brother ( CBS) , you're out. A few courts in a handful of jurisdictions have established a right to privacy for employees, but it's not the norm, says Bales. "Not many courts have recognized it and those who do have done so in a fairly limited way," he says, citing the case of an employee who was fired for volunteering with an AIDS organization. For employees with contracts, like Colodne, things are slightly more complicated. Patriarch says it fired Colodne under a clause in his contract requiring him to seek permission before accepting outside work. Colodne's attorney says that since the financier wasn't paid for his Housewives stint, it doesn't qualify as work. "His incidental appearance on the TV show does not violate the terms of that contract," lawyer Robert Kraus insists. Most employment agreements have some type of catch-all clause that says a worker can be fired for embarrassing the company, Bales says. "The standard tends to be tougher the more you are identified with the company," Bales says. "So if the president of GM ( GM) is caught at a topless bar, that reflects pretty poorly on GM whereas if it's a janitor, it's not really a big deal." The smartest way to proceed is to talk to your manager before you commit to anything, advises Mark Toth, chief legal officer at Manpower North America. "Say, 'I have this opportunity, I think it could be good publicity for the company. What do you think?'" he suggests. Written documentation is key, says Toth, "so try to get it in email if you can." Some companies embrace their employees' participation. Southwest Airlines welcomed cameras behind the scenes for the reality show Airline. The carrier also permitted one of its pilots to be filmed in the cockpit for the TLC ( HSWI) show The Secret Life of A Soccer Mom.
"We trust our employees is what it comes down to," says spokesperson Ashley Rogers. Of course, neither of those shows is known for the sort of sex and humiliation excesses that give reality TV a bad name. Rogers says she is unaware of the company ever barring an employee from appearing on the Temptation Island ( NWS) ilk, but adds, "We are a family-centered environment so we wouldn't align ourselves with something that doesn't hold up those values."