My Five-Step Ethical Analysis: Paula Deen

Let’s apply my five-step method for making ethical, profitable business decisions (see my March 4 and March 11 blog entries) to the controversy surrounding Paula Deen and the decision of the Food Network, Random House, Walmart, and some other companies to stop promoting Deen and her products. I am not talking about whether Deen did anything unethical. I am talking about the ethical conduct of Food Network, Random House, Walmart, and the other companies that have cut ties with Deen the past few days. Is cutting ties with Deen the ethical thing to do?

Let’s analyze it using my five-step method. As I explained in my March 11 blog entry, it isn’t really “my” five-step method. It is, I believe, the method that most businesspeople use to make business decisions. The only thing about it that is “mine” (David A. Robinson’s) is that I boiled it down to five simple questions managers ask themselves. It is my way of explaining how the ethical managerial mind works.

Question 1: Is it illegal? What do I mean by “it”? I do not mean Paula Deen’s conduct (I’ll discuss Deen’s conduct in some detail later in this blog entry). I mean the conduct of the Food Network, Random House, Walmart, and the other companies that have announced they will not promote or sell Deen and her products. Is it illegal for them to cut their ties to Deen? My guess (in this situation, I am just guessing; I haven’t fully researched the issue; I am not giving legal advice here) is that in this particular situation, Question 1 becomes basically the same as Question 2. So, let us ask 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? The first thing a company should do if the company wants to cut its ties to Deen is read the company’s contract with Deen. For example, Food Network announced that its contract with Deen expires June 30 (yesterday). Food Network is thus saying that it is not really “terminating” its contract with Deen but rather is not renewing the contract. My guess (again, I am just guessing) is that these companies have read their contracts with Deen and have decided that cutting their ties to Deen does not breach their contract with Deen. I have not seen their contracts with Deen, and I have no opinion about their contracts with Deen. I’m simply saying (guessing) that these companies believe that they have the right, pursuant to whatever contract they have or had with Deen, to stop promoting Deen and her products.

If the answer to questions 1 and 2 is no (again, I’m not saying the answer to questions 1 and 2 is no; I’m just saying that if the answer to questions 1 and 2 is no), 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? Again, the question here is not whether Deen offended anyone, nor is it whether Deen will lose money as a result of offending anyone. I’ll discuss those questions in a moment. Rather, the question here is whether the Food Network, Random House, Walmart and the other companies that have cut their ties with Deen in the past few days are offending people by cutting their ties to Deen, and if they are offending people, are they offending enough people that they (these companies) will, as a result cutting their ties to Deen, lose money rather than gain money. If, as a result cutting their ties to Deen, they will lose money rather than gain money, an argument can be made that cutting their ties to Deen is not the ethical thing to do. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with that argument; I’m just saying that a plausible argument can be made.

So let’s take a close look at what Paula Deen did (and didn’t do). From what I can tell (perhaps I’m mistaken), these companies have based their decision to cut ties with Deen on testimony she gave at a deposition on May 17, 2013. In that deposition, Deen testified that in 1986, while working in a bank, she was robbed at gunpoint by a black man. He did not hurt her, but she was emotionally shaken. She went home, and when telling her husband what happened to her that day, used the N-word to describe the robber. She admits she said the N-word a few other times many years ago but that she was merely quoting what other people, including some black people who worked for her, said.

I have read her entire deposition. It is publicly available on the internet. I’m sure you can find it if you look for it. I read it today (July 1, 2013) on a website called talkingpointsmemo.com. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, the only thing Paula Deen did wrong or said wrong is she used the N-word one day in 1986—27 years ago—when describing to her husband the black man who had robbed her at gunpoint that day. She should not have said that word (N-word) that day or any other day, but her saying that word on that day and in the context of the other times she said that word (repeating what she heard someone else say) does not, in my eyes and in the eyes of most people, justify cutting ties with her. She was extremely upset the day she was robbed at gunpoint, and when people are extremely upset they sometime say things they shouldn’t say. She didn’t say it to a black person. She said it in the privacy of her home, to her husband, one day 27 years ago.

There are some other incidents described in her deposition, involving, for example, her saying the f-word in a private conversation with someone, her saying a five-letter word beginning with “p” and ending in “y” to describe a situation involving a man whom she fired for having sex with an underage girl (the important point is that Deen fired the man; she did not tolerate this man’s sexual misconduct), her (Deen’s) brother’s allegedly looking at pornography on his computer (he was co-owner of a restaurant with Deen), and her desire to cater her brother’s wedding in a manner similar to the way another restaurant caters events. I carefully read her deposition and everything her deposition says about these incidents. In my opinion, these incidents do not justify cutting ties with Deen. Read her deposition and decide for yourself.

I wonder whether the decisionmakers at Food Network, Random House, Walmart, and the other companies that have dropped Deen like a hot potato in the past few days have actually read her deposition. I encourage them to read it. I encourage every business person, every business student, and every law student to read it. It is 149 pages long but a very quick 149 pages because there is only a small amount of text on each page. I am a slow reader yet it took me only about 30 minutes to read it. Don’t just read about her deposition. Don’t just read the news media’s description of her deposition. Read her deposition. Decide for yourself. In my opinion, any fair-minded person who reads Paula Deen’s whole deposition will conclude that her career should not be ruined over this. I am guessing (maybe I’m mistaken) that the Food Network, Random House, Walmart, and the other companies that have cut ties with Deen will lose money rather than gain money as a result of their decision. Many other companies with ties to Paula Deen are continuing, rather than cutting, their ties with Deen. The We Support Paula Deen Facebook page has, at the present moment, 553,000 likes. My guess is that the answer to Question 3 will turn out to be yes. My guess is that many people, especially people who take the time to read Deen’s deposition, will feel that the companies that have cut ties with Deen in the past few days have done so without justification. These people will be offended by these companies’ cutting ties with Deen. My guess is that more people will be offended by these companies’ cutting ties with Deen than by anything Deen said or did. That is just my guess. But we’ll see what happens. There could be further developments in the Paula Deen story, so it is too early to predict what the eventual economic impact of this story will be on Deen and these companies.

If the answer to Question 3 is yes, Questions 4 and 5 of my 5-step analysis do not apply in this situation. Questions 4 and 5 apply only when the answer to Question 3 is no.

I will close by saying I am not a fan of Paula Deen’s. I am indifferent about Paula Deen. I neither like her nor dislike her. I never paid any attention to her until these past few days. I never watched her show. I never bought her products. But I don’t like when someone is being treated unfairly. Based on what I’ve heard and read the past few days, I think Paula Deen is being treated unfairly.

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