Everyone knows the line, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Savannah native Paula Deen has a brand new understanding of that phrase given recent developments in her employment lawsuit. Celebrity chef Deen watched as her lucrative contract with the Food Network lapsed and she was then fired from an endorsement deal with Smithfield. Her other business enterprises appear to be under attack, including relationships with Wal-Mart and QVC.
The news, of course, stems from leaked court documents that revealed Deen’s use of derogatory slurs among other examples of questionable (at best) judgment. Though everyone could stand to learn a few things from Deen--including how to increase the flavor of almost every dish with butter and/or bacon--there are a few important legal lessons that employers should take away from Deen’s unfortunate career meltdown.
The first important lesson is that unacceptable behavior and language, especially relating to racial, sexual and religious matters, risks tremendous damage to your company and company’s brand. Many people have learned the hard way that the days of safely being able to tell off-color jokes without consequence are long gone. This harm can happen immediately and last a long time, potentially permanently harming the interests of even the most respected professionals and companies. In many cases the only recourse a company has is to distance itself from the offender, much like the Food Network has done in this case. It is a business reality that a company's loyalty must be to its customers more than any individual employee, with no exceptions. As my father-in-law likes to say, cemeteries are full of people who considered themselves irreplaceable.
Second, employers should take this as an important warning about the dangers of getting too familiar with your employees. Though a friendly working relationship obviously makes the workday more pleasant for everyone, there are certain actions that clearly cross the line between humorous and offensive. It is difficult to imagine many workplaces in which it would be acceptable to display or discuss pornography, for example, or for managers to discuss (even jokingly) the ethnic backgrounds of staff members. Rather than dive into such controversial subjects, a company would be well-advised to confine chitchat to more appropriate matters. Discussing the weather, for example, is not very likely to lead to many employment discrimination lawsuits.
A final key lesson if you should ever find yourself embroiled in a similar employment lawsuit: make sure to hire a good employment law attorney who can help you fully and completely prepare for a deposition. In this case, the Food Network has long known about the harassment lawsuit Ms. Deen was facing, but likely felt comfortable that their star chef would ultimately prevail and the details would likely merit little more than local attention. It was only when the transcript of Deen’s deposition surfaced and her own words were publicly used against her that the network moved swiftly to cut ties with their employee. Had Ms. Deen's testimony been handled differently (or even been kept private), one has to wonder whether the cable channel would have even considered severing its profitable relationship with the chef.
Given the immense harm caused by Deen’s own words, it’s critical that employers hire an attorney who can properly prepare them for the tough questions they are likely to face. More importantly, listen and follow the advice being given. Ms. Deen may well have been thoroughly and expertly prepared, but failing to follow her attorney's advice was a recipe for disaster. Though a witness obviously cannot lie or withhold relevant information, one can learn to handle responses more deftly and craft answers that better convey your complete story and position. Shooting from the hip may make great television, but it makes for a lousy (and potentially costly) deposition. Deen’s case may well continue to get worse as corporate sponsors and employers feel the heat from their close relationship with the chef. This case should serve as a cautionary tale for the leaders of all businesses about how to avoid such a costly slipup.