My Five-Step Ethical Analysis: Paula Deen, part 2

A man who read my July 1 blog entry about Paula Deen told me I should be more critical of Deen and less critical of the companies that have cut ties to her. I asked him if he read Deen’s deposition. He answered no. I asked why not. He said, “I don’t have to read her deposition. I’ve seen and heard the news stories. That’s good enough for me.”

Although I think this man is being unfair to Deen by criticizing her without first reading her deposition, I will nonetheless demonstrate how my five-step method for making ethical, profitable business decisions would apply to Deen’s behavior.

Question 1: Is it illegal? What do I mean by “it”? There is more than one “it” in Deen’s case. One “it” is Paula Deen’s saying the N-word in a private conversation with her husband in 1986 to describe the black man who robbed her at gunpoint that day, I don’t think “it” (Paula Deen’s saying the N-word that day) was illegal. From what I read in her deposition (all I know is what I read in her deposition), I doubt that her saying the N-word on other occasions was illegal, either. Is it illegal to say the N-word? Sometimes it is illegal to say the N-word. Racial harassment is usually illegal, and calling a black person (to the black person’s face) the N-word is racial harassment. But Deen, according to her deposition, did not say the N-word to a black person. Furthermore, the woman who is suing Deen is white, not black. So, just based on what I have heard and read so far, I doubt that Deen’s saying the N-word was illegal. It was offensive, but I doubt (just based on what I have read thus far) that it was illegal.

What about the other things Deen said, did, didn’t say, and didn’t do? Nothing that I have seen, read, or heard thus far would lead me to conclude that any of Deen’s conduct was illegal.

So, if the answer to Question 1 is no, or we aren’t sure whether it is yes or no, we go to Question 2.

Question 2: Is it a tort, breach of contract, or other activity that might cause someone to sue your company and win the suit? Obviously, Deen said or did something that caused someone to sue her. The entire controversy surrounding Deen during the past week or two arose when the deposition in a lawsuit against Deen was made public. Since someone is suing Deen, does that mean Deen did something unethical? Not necessarily. Anyone can sue. The question is not whether someone sued Deen—obviously, someone sued Deen—but whether the plaintiff in that lawsuit might win the suit. I don’t have enough information to know what the chances are that the plaintiff in this lawsuit will win the suit, but from what I have read and heard thus far, I have serious doubts about whether the plaintiff will win the suit. A white woman is suing Deen, who is also a white woman, for race discrimination. The plaintiff is also suing Deen’s restaurant because, the woman alleges, the restaurant owners, including Deen, permitted sexually offensive jokes in the workplace. As far as the race discrimination claim, the question is not whether Deen or her restaurant said or did anything offensive but rather whether they violated the plaintiff’s rights according to the employment discrimination laws. So far, nothing I have seen or heard in this lawsuit indicates that Deen or her restaurant violated the employment discrimination laws. I will not comment on the plaintiff’s claim of a sexually hostile work environment. I don’t have enough information. Suffice it to say that employers should not tolerate sexually offensive jokes in the workplace. Whether these jokes were severe enough or pervasive enough to violate the plaintiff’s rights according the employment discrimination laws (sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination), I don’t have enough information.

But let us, just for the sake of discussion, assume that the answer to Question 2 is no. We go to Question 3.

Question 3: Will it offend people, and if so, will it offend enough people so that the amount of money you lose by doing it is greater than the amount of money you gain by doing it? In my July 1 blog entry, I tried to guess whether the companies that have cut their ties with Deen in the past week or two will lose money rather than gain money as a result. In this July 5 blog, I try to guess whether Deen will lose money rather than gain money as a result of her conduct that is the subject of the lawsuit. It is too early to guess about that. We’ll have to wait and see. In the short run (the next few weeks or months), it seems quite possible that Deen will lose money rather than gain money as a result of her conduct that is the subject of the lawsuit. In the long run, it is too early to guess what will happen. We’ll have to wait and see.

Since it is too early to answer Question 3, we do not yet go to Questions 4 and 5.

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