The latest controversy in the Twitterverse centers on the recent firing of a Bevy employee following public allegations of racist behavior. Looking beyond the publicity storm, what can this incident teach us about managing diversity policies in the event industry?
If the recent brouhaha around the termination of a Bevy employee leaves us with any lasting lesson, it’s that companies need to think carefully about the nature and scope of their DEI policies — especially in the event industry.
We are living in an era of increasing polarization, and it’s difficult for any organization to remain neutral on social and political issues. This truism is particularly relevant for event professionals, whose business model depends on bringing people together for shared experiences. It’s an industry that exists at the intersection between interpersonal bonding and professional network building. For this reason, event industry players often have to align their brand messaging with community values.
In turn, every part of the organization should embody these values, including its staff. This means not only embracing inclusive hiring practices, but also ensuring that employees consistently uphold codes of conduct. The practical implications, however, are not always clear until faced with real-world examples — with real consequences for both a company’s staff and its public image.
For all these reasons, it’s vital to reflect on the circumstances surrounding Bevy’s recent decision to enforce a policy of “zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior of any kind.” Does their example serve as a model to follow, a cautionary tale, or evidence that DEI best practices are still a work in progress?
The Facts Behind the Controversy
To understand the big picture and why it’s relevant to the event industry, it helps to know a little about the backstory.
Bevy is an event tech company that has carved out a niche as an online platform for community events. In keeping with this focus on community involvement, Bevy has built a reputation as a champion of progressive social values, most notably as an ally to the black community. Given their strong DEI record, it is perhaps a strange twist of fate that they would have to face public accusations of racism against one of their employees.
But that is precisely what happened. On September 25, Frederick Joseph, author of The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person, shared the following text on Twitter:
“At the dog park in Brooklyn with my fiancé and this white woman was threatening to call police and told us to ‘stay in our hood’ because she had our dog confused with another dog who had been barking loudly. So, I started recording and she tried to slap the phone out my hand.”
The accompanying video provides evidence that the accused woman struck Joseph’s phone; but perhaps more significantly, it also records a nearby witness corroborating Joseph’s claim that the woman told him and his partner to “stay in [their] hood.” It didn’t take long for someone to reveal the woman’s identity — Emma Sarley, a then-employee of Bevy — after which Joseph tagged both Bevy’s official Twitter account and that of its CEO and co-founder, Derek Andersen. Less than 24 hours after Joseph’s initial post, Andersen publicly announced that Sarley’s employment at Bevy had been terminated.
Since then, social media’s most active participants have been quick to either applaud or condemn the decision. If anything has become clear in the aftermath, it’s that no matter how Bevy had responded, the company’s actions (or inaction) would have provoked a backlash from one quarter or another. The real question is not how they could have avoided controversy. Instead, it’s about whether they made the right value judgments in deciding how to respond.
The Legal Implications
When it comes to deciding between right and wrong, people’s first inclination is often to defer to the law of the land. And from a business perspective, it’s crucial to understand the legal consequences of any HR decision — particularly when it relates to concerns around DEI policies.
Among all the tweets that have questioned his decision, Derek Andersen has chosen to repost only one: an angry comment that raises the possibility of a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. Andersen responded, “Do what is right; let the consequences follow.”
But what are the potential legal consequences? According to Mahir S. Nisar, Principal at the Nisar Law Group, Sarley does have a right to launch a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, just as Amy Cooper is doing against her former employer, but he doesn’t believe them to have any merit.
Like Cooper, Sarley would be up against the “at-will” employment standard that applies in all but one of the nation’s states. “The employer can terminate the employee for any reason as long as it’s not unlawful,” Nisar explained. What might be considered an ‘illegal’ reason to fire someone? “When it comes to employment laws, questions of legality usually relate to violations of the anti-discrimination statutes codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its City and State counterpart laws.”
In other words, Sarley would likely have to claim discrimination based on her race or sex. In fact, that is exactly what Amy Cooper is attempting. And while “Karen” may be a gendered term, it will undoubtedly be difficult to argue that her termination was rooted in discrimination against white women.
What about the legal consequences of inaction? Nisar was able to comment on this hypothetical scenario as well:
“If an employee was determined to be engaging in racial profiling or some other form of discriminatory behavior, and the employer received a complaint, the employer would be considered on notice from that point. And this applies whether the incident occurred in or beyond the workplace.”
Arguably, failing to act on allegations of discriminatory behavior could have more significant legal consequences than taking a zero tolerance approach.
The Personal Consequences
Legal consequences are not, however, the only way to judge right and wrong — even in an HR context. If companies want to preserve their reputation and foster a supportive work culture, they need to think beyond what is strictly required under the law.
On this matter, however, we cannot simply turn to an expert for guidance. Instead, a balanced analysis involves weighing each side of the debate.
On the one hand, there are objections that Sarley is suffering life-changing consequences for a momentary verbal exchange that occurred outside of work, possibly while she was inebriated. And although Bevy is not legally required to supply firm evidence as a justification for their decision, many are calling for a company-led investigation of the circumstances. As her defenders point out, the video recording does not actually show Sarley making the racist statement she was alleged to have said, nor does it show her threatening to call the police.
On the other hand, the witness testimony recorded in the video lends credibility to Joseph’s claims. And if Joseph’s allegations are true, Sarley’s behavior suggests underlying biases that might affect everyday working relationships. It was this latter possibility that Joseph raised when he initially tagged Bevy: “I’m hoping Black colleagues and peers don’t have to face this sort of racism from Emma.”
The HR Lessons
How do employers balance the duty to respond swiftly to allegations of racism against the duty to investigate them?
The answer to this question is ultimately a question of setting priorities — and committing to allegiances. Because the stakes are high, companies should work out official policies before they are faced with responding to a high-pressure situation on a public platform.
How will the company respond when an employee is accused of discriminatory behavior outside of work? With termination? Sensitivity training? An investigation into the circumstances?
Carefully considered protocols can even serve as damage control. In Bevy’s case, for example, it might have been prudent to announce the dismissal through the company’s Twitter account rather than through Andersen’s personal one. This tactic might have avoided (or at least delayed) critics trawling through years of Andersen’s tweets to find evidence of offensive language, all for the purpose of labeling him a hypocrite.
Sam Stern, a DEI facilitator with Journeys to Remember in South Africa, also recommends that employers make their expectations of staff clear at the hiring stage. “There needs to be greater focus on values alignment — ensuring better alignment between the company’s values and the values of the individuals that make up the company,” she explained. “This includes explicit conversations about the types of behavior — both inside and outside the workplace — that reflect the company’s values, and therefore are an appropriate representation of the company.”
From Stern’s perspective, it’s important for companies to take a stand:
“This situation highlights the costs of allyship. If it didn’t cost anything, everyone would be doing it! Real allyship is hard and uncomfortable and there are real costs and risks attached to it. Real allyship is not just words in a vision statement or an employee manual. It involves making hard decisions and staking a claim. Otherwise it’s not allyship. It’s neutrality.”
Sam Stern, DEI facilitator, trainer, and team coach, Journeys to Remember
As a final point, neutrality may not even be a practical option in today’s political climate. When SaaS company Basecamp recently updated their staff policies to prohibit political discussions within the workplace, roughly a third of their employees ended up leaving the company.
Did Bevy make the right decision? The answer to this question will likely depend on the political views of the person passing judgment. What’s clear is that Bevy made the decision most closely aligned with the values they have built their reputation around.
If there is a larger lesson to be learned, it’s that companies in the event industry should think carefully about their codes of conduct. By the same token, it’s prudent to establish thorough protocols for dealing with potential violations — whether they occur during working hours, or in the social sphere. The policies should not only reflect the company’s core values, but should also carefully outline the expectations placed on staff both inside and outside the workplace.