ABC Cancels the Roseanne Show After Racist Tweet

Two key points leaders should consider if they are in this situation.

Posted May 30, 2018

By now, many people have heard about Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, an influential African-American attorney who served as senior advisor to President Obama. Quite frankly, considering Barr’s very public political views, previous offensive statements, and bombastic persona, few people are surprised that she would tweet a racist statement. However, what does come as a surprise to many people is how quickly and the level at which top Disney and ABC executives responded to her racist tweet. Within hours, Walt Disney’s CEO, Robert Iger tweeted a quote from ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey that stated, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” Iger added to the tweet stating, “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.” I agree that canceling Barr’s show was the right thing for ABC to do in this case.

ABC’s decision, however, raises important questions for other organizational leaders. Barr is not the only employee who has ever publicly made a bigoted statement, and sadly, she will not be the last (Avery, Volpone, & Holmes, 2018). As such, many organizational leaders might wonder how should they respond if their employees make bigoted statements. While there are no “one size fits all” answers to these situations and my question prompts are not meant to be an exhaustive list of all questions leaders should ask, I will offer two key points leaders should consider if they find themselves in this situation.

1. Examine the Context.

Context is extremely important and shapes how people will interpret any given event (Johns, 2006; Weick, 1995). Undoubtedly, what qualifies as a bigoted statement might vary among well-meaning people within the same organization or even the social identity group, which always increase the complexity of these situations (Holmes, Whitman, Campbell, & Johnson, 2016). Leaders should ask themselves, “Who made the statement and what is that person’s work and/or personal history around this issue?” “Is the person an in-group or out-group member?” “What is the history of status, power dynamics, and oppression of the identity-group targeted by the statement and of the identity-group of the member who made the statement?” “In what setting was the statement made?” “What, if any, intentions can be identified from the person who made the statement?” “What are the typical norms expected of people when referencing this social identity group?” “What are the potential consequences to your organization for a number of actions you might take?” The quickest example I can give to highlight this point is the different impact, interpretations, and consequences around when in-group and out-group members use the N-word (racio-ethnic identity group), the B-word (gender-identity group), and F-word (sexual orientation identity group). Of course, examples are not limited to controversial epithets. For example, it is common for athletes (in-group members) to pat each other on the butt in games for “doing a good job,” but it would be highly offensive and controversial if a reporter (out-group member) patted those same athletes on their butts for “doing a good job” after interviewing them. Context matters.

2. Identify your Goal(s) and Seek Congruence.

Organizations often have lofty espoused values, but oftentimes fall short in enacting them (Gruys, Stewart, Goodstein, Bing, & Wicks, 2008). This is true for individuals as well. Espoused values highlight what an organization or person believes, stands for, supports, and values. Common espoused values for organizations include their commitment to “diversity or safety” or being “environmentally-friendly or charitable.” Common espoused values people say they hold include fairness, diversity, honesty, and loyalty. While most people expect organization’s (and other people) to express these lofty espoused values, the truth is that many people will forgive or overlook some actions that are misaligned with one’s espoused values. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find any airline or car company that does not tout safety as an espoused value. But there are several documented instances with catastrophic outcomes that we can point to where executives of airline and car companies made decisions that they knew would compromise the safety of their aircraft or vehicles. Nonetheless, many organizations survive these misfortunes. Likewise, many people disavow racism and express deep beliefs in diversity, yet engage in actions that are incongruent with these espoused values. For example, many people proudly support and patronize professional and non-professional teams and organizations that use or accept the use of Native Americans as mascots or team names, an offense that is racist and a cause that Native Americans and their supporters have been fighting to end for decades (Moya-Smith, 2014). 

Leaders dealing with these issues should identify what their goals are and take actions that are congruent with them. Many times these issues impact competing goals for organizations, so leaders need to prioritize some goals over others. While ABC’s decision might cost them significant revenue, their decision to cancel Barr’s show does not threaten the company’s existence nor its overall competitive position. This is also the case for Starbucks, another major company that was recently embroiled in a race-related situation and responded by adopting measures that will result in the company losing millions in potential revenue. Although maximizing profit is a common goal, these companies chose and have the luxury to prioritize their goal of enacting their espoused values. Indeed, ABC’s decision to cancel Roseanne sends a strong signal to its employees and the general public that racist statements made by its employees will be met with serious consequences. But what about organizations that might go bankrupt or seriously compromise their competitive position? Should they be advised to do the same thing that companies like ABC and Starbucks did in response to a racist action by their employee(s)? The answer is, it depends. Here leaders need to ask themselves: “Which goals can we afford to prioritize?” “What will likely be the collateral damage of our choosing some goals over others?” “What type of signals do we want to send?” “Do we wish to set a precedence with this action/decision?” While it might be laudable to always enact one’s espoused values, it is simply not always the most prudent or practical thing to do. To be clear, this realization does not give an organization or people free reign to justify any bad behavior they want to engage in or shed all their values. It simply means that the world is complex and people often have to make difficult decisions, and at times, these decisions might be incongruent with their espoused values. 

Today, more than ever before, the actions that organizations take and the reactions that they have when it comes to identity-based issues are heavily scrutinized by employees and the general public. This greatly raises the stakes for organizations and should remind leaders that who is and isn’t an important stakeholder should be viewed much more broadly than what is commonly taught in business schools. Leaders who find themselves in these controversial identity-based situations should scrutinize their context and identify their goal(s) and respond congruently.

References

Avery, D. R., Volpone, S. D., & Holmes IV, O. (2018). Racial discrimination in organizations. In A. J. Colella & E. B. King (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Workplace Discrimination (pp. 89–109). New York: Oxford University Press. http://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199363643.013.8

Gruys, M. L., Stewart, S. M., Goodstein, J., Bing, M. N., & Wicks,  a. C. (2008). Values Enactment in Organizations: A Multi-Level Examination. Journal of Management (Vol. 34). http://doi.org/10.1177/0149206308318610

Holmes IV, O., Whitman, M. V., Campbell, K. S., & Johnson, D. E. (2016). Exploring the social identity threat response. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 35(3), 205–220. http://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-08-2015-0068

Johns, G. (2006). The essential impact of context on organizational behavior. Academy of Management Review, 31(2), 386–408.

Moya-Smith, S. (2014). Native Americans: We’re not your Mascots. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/19/opinion/moya-smith-native-american-racism/...

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oak, CA: Sage.