Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lessons for Employers and Managers . . . from Paula Deen

The controversy swirling around Paula Deen,, and her purported use of the "N" word as part of her vocabulary,  has been at the center of a media maelstrom.  On one side we see Ms. Deen losing her lucrative position as a Food Network celebrity chef, the cancellation of most of her even more lucrative endorsement arrangements, and the vitriolic enmity of much of the mainstream media.  On the other side, Ms. Deen is defended by those who argue there is a double standard, and that simply because she used an offensive racial epithet in the past she shouldn't be shunned by society, when so many celebrities and other public figures have done so much worse.  For example, there has been a Facebook "Meme" circulating listing many of the other Food Network Celebrity Chefs and all of their social slips and legal conundrums, including adultery, slander, financial fraud, and sexual harassment.  Surely Paula's "slip of the lip" in the past pales by comparison.

But Paula Deen's use of the "N" word must be kept in proper context -- a context in which Employers and Managers must be wary.  Paula's indiscreet comments weren't overheard at a cocktail party.  She didn't slip up in a casual conversation.  She is accused of regularly using this language in the context of a workplace environment, where it is allegedly part of an overall employment atmosphere that was hostile to African American workers.

Paula Deen, in partnership with her brother,  runs a very famous and successful restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.  An employee of that restaurant filed a lawsuit, complaining of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.  One of the specific allegations was that Deen and other restaurant managers often made racist comments disparaging African-Americans -- specifically using the "N" word.

After this civil suit was filed, the plaintiff's attorney deposed Ms. Deen.  He asked her pointed questions about what was going on at the restaurant on a day to day basis, and what kind of things managers would say to employees.  Ms. Deen was under oath, and had to tell the truth.  While she may have attempted to soft pedal the matter, she ended up admitting that she had used racially charged language in the workplace.  The reason why its become a matter of public speculation is that a copy of Ms. Deen's deposition testimony was filed with the court, making it a matter of the public record.

This means that anyone can see exactly what Paula Deen said.  The evidence is pretty damning.  This isn't a case of Ms. Deen merely telling a racist joke,  or slipping up and falling back into the phrases she may have heard as a child growing up in the South (I've heard that used as an excuse often by older white folks to justify their continued entrenchment in a segregated mind set.  "Back in my day, we used that word all the time, and nobody thought nuthin' of it").  Paula Deen wasn't just expressing her opinion, or exercising her first amendment rights.  She was using this offensive language in the context of managing her employees.  In the context of conducting business.  And while it could be argued that the degree of her offense might not be as great as public opinion finds, there is one inescapable conclusion.  She admits to doing it, under oath.

I advise my business clients to be so careful about these things.  Not just intend to do right, but establish well written, easy to understand employment policies that express not just that such behavior will not be tolerated, but that those who do not comply will be disciplined or terminated. That violations will be promptly investigated and decidedly dealt with.  I advise them to send a message to their employees that management will protect not just their livelihood, but their dignity.  They need to establish a workplace atmosphere that will remain as free from this kind of hostility as possible.

Paula Deen is accused of much more than just blithely dropping the "N" word on occasion.  She is charged with fostering an atmosphere of racial discrimination against African Americans in her place of business.  The context of the situation cannot be minimized.  She now watches her livelihood slip away from her not because she was a bad person or "politically incorrect."  She was (allegedly) a poor manager, allowing unacceptable social concepts to control the business environment under her authority.

The lesson employers and managers can take away from Paula Deen is that the lack of solid employment policy making and our own insensitivity to our employees can lead to ruin.  Many of my business clients with employees want me to help them to head off employee charges and lawsuits, and then, when charges are filed, to help dispose of them or win.  But Paula Deen's situation shows that there is so much more at stake than a lawsuit.  She may eventually lose everything she has over this.  Even before the pre-trial conference is held.

And that should make Employers and Managers pause, and ponder these concepts.