Words matter. They matter to your employees, clients, shareholders, and customers. When employees and leaders use toxic words—including slurs related to race, sexual orientation and national origin—the organization’s reputation can suffer immensely. And if the organization tolerates the conduct, it can anger and alienate your workforce, your customers, and even your loyal followers. Terrible damage is inflicted upon your people, and also your bottom line.
Just this past week, celebrity chef Paula Deen learned this lesson the hard way. And her fall from grace has been swift and painful for her empire and image.
Deen is currently being sued by a former employee for racial discrimination, and court documents filed last week revealed that she told an attorney questioning her under oath that she has used the N-word. "Yes, of course," Deen said, though she added, "It's been a very long time." In a few short days, the culinary icon has been dumped (not just by the Food Network but also by Smithfield Foods, a major sponsor) faster than I’ve ever seen in similar scandals involving celebrities and racially derogatory language.
A Smithfield spokesperson released the following statement:
"Smithfield condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind. Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen. Smithfield is determined to be an ethical food industry leader and it is important that our values and those of our spokespeople are properly aligned."
Deen also holds a lucrative contract with QVC. The shopping channel has announced that is it “reviewing” its business relationship with Deen.
Deen is not the first celebrity to experience such a sudden downfall, nor will she be the last. This event reminds us that each employee—no matter how famous or how educated or how vital to a team of employees—enters the workplace with unique experiences and biases. In some instances these biases are toxic and even illegal when acted upon. For many employees, they are unaware of their biases or simply don’t understand that expressing their biases are offensive. And unfortunately, some employees will choose to make toxic statements if they are given a chance.
Employers have an obligation to be thoughtful and deliberate about creating a workplace of respect and tolerance for all employees -- and making sure that employees understand the consequences if they engage in hate speech or other offensive conduct. They also have an obligation to stakeholders to protect their organization’s values and reputation.
This is where education and awareness is so central to a comprehensive and effective ethics and compliance program. All employees should receive regular discrimination and harassment training—and those training programs should encompass trending issues in hate speech—race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. Let employees know what is and is not acceptable, and the consequences for using offensive language.
As a final trend, look for training options that allow you to message more frequently, with shorter programs. It is no secret that available training “seat time” is diminishing and organizations are suffering from training fatigue. For an issue as central as harassment and discrimination prevention (and for which there are multiple requirements mandating repeat training) communicate with your employees more frequently – and in more compelling ways. They are more likely to pay attention and retain the information. As importantly, you have a better chance at keeping content fresh and getting ahead of key issues and trends.
Finally, when you are confronted with an employee who just doesn’t get it, it’s time to let them go. Quickly. The Deen story is a lesson in decisive swiftness.