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Let’s Break it Down | What Can Companies Do When They Spot(ify) a Problematic Employee

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


In the digital age, there are infinite opportunities for a company to find itself in hot water over an employee, client, or vendor’s past offense suddenly unearthed and shared on social media. Spotify shouldn’t have been surprised to find itself in the crosshairs of a controversy involving the currently polarizing figure of Joe Rogan who is embroiled in not one, but two controversies: COVID-misinformation spreading on his podcast and the revived conversation around his gratuitous use of the N-word and other racial slurs.

The combination of battles on the COVID and racism fronts has created quite a mess for Spotify. The COVID response is still developing: Rogan’s podcast now includes a disclaimer cautioning listeners about misinformation, but artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have not reversed their plan to remove music from Spotify. Meanwhile, there are many different perspectives on how to handle the racism claims. The question looms — what is Spotify’s role and responsibility in all of this?

Last week, the company pledged $100 million to develop and market content from groups that have historically been marginalized, and the CEO Daniel Ek provided an apology to Spotify employees for the impact this ordeal was having, stating, “Not only are some of Joe Rogan’s comments incredibly hurtful — I want you to make clear that they do not represent the values of this company.” Despite an acknowledgment that “this situation leaves many of you feeling drained, frustrated, and unheard,” Spotify has maintained the position that Rogan’s podcast will not be dropped from the platform.

While few companies will have to grapple with a controversial public figure on their platform, many companies will have to deal with an employee or partner who does not embody their DEI values.

Imagine a hypothetical global company, Company X. One of the teams at Company X is having a bit of a culture issue. Specifically, the leader of this team consistently behaves in a way that undermines Company X’s DEI values. Over the years, employees have raised complaints with HR here and there; by now, this leader’s behavior is a bit of an open secret. Yet, the leader remains, and Company X executives point to this team’s financial success as justification. Over time, the known issues on this team reach a boiling point, prompting Company X executives to speak up. In a company-wide address, an executive assures employees, particularly people of color, that Company X takes DEI seriously, and says “this person’s actions do not represent the values of this company.”

Many people have experienced a similar situation as the one described with Company X, and may have a variety of perspectives on how it should be handled. Certainly, Company X has every right to make the decisions they do, even if that decision is retaining a problematic leader. But, they cannot expect people to take seriously that Company X values DEI while continuing to support someone with such a documented history of the opposite. For companies that want to meaningfully respond in the face of such DEI quandaries, I have a few recommendations.

First, acknowledge the failure and what it reveals about your current state. In a world that still undermines equity and inclusion for folks from marginalized backgrounds and identities, it is important to boldly and clearly state what you believe. That is why DEI statements can be so powerful. At their best, these statements are aspirational; they tell a story of who the company wants to be, and how people within the company are expected to behave. However, far too often, DEI statements are used as a cover for inequitable practices. If/when something happens that contradicts the values of that statement, organizations owe it to their employees to do more than say, “this is not who we are.” Rather than re-stating DEI aspirations, I invite leaders to take a deep look at their organization, and say, “What does this event tell us about who we are, who we want to be, and what we need to do to close the gap?”

As you acknowledge the gap, you’ll also want to be clear about the implications. For example, companies who retain leaders that willfully go against DEI values are sending a message that they are willing to prioritize financial success at the expense of employee churn. Even though that is not the call I’d make, stating the reality plainly makes it easier to discuss. Acknowledge the harm that comes with making that decision, and assess whether it aligns with your DEI philosophy.

Then, actively involve the impacted group(s) in building solutions. Failing to live up to your company’s DEI values will do the most harm to folks from marginalized groups. Recognize that your company may have damaged trust, and that the damage may be irreparable for some. For those who are willing to stick around and see how your company recovers, provide some suggestions for what you can do. In the case of Company X, it might be removing the leader in question from management responsibilities to mitigate their negative impact. It might be removing the leader altogether from the company. Dealing with a single actor is important, but isn’t a holistic solution. Instead, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and consider what the situation with that single actor revealed about your company’s policies and practices. Often, I work with leaders who learn, after holding listening sessions or focus groups, that their employees of color have incredible insights into how to effect change along these lines. All that was missing was the willingness to listen. So, take your time to hear them out, and gather information on how your company can better live up to your values.

Finally, create better structures to prevent the same things from happening again. Accountability is not just about apologizing when things go wrong; it’s also about showing that you have a different plan for the future. Missteps — even huge ones — will happen. And apologizing and acknowledging the harm done is imperative. So, too, is demonstrating — through consistent action — that you’ve learned from those missteps and have a different plan. Although I’m not privy to these conversations, I’m willing to bet a lot that Spotify’s team is now putting together a plan (or updating their previous plan) for how to address prominent hosts who make inflammatory statements on their platform. Perhaps they even have a flow chart that identifies when they intervene, and how, and are circulating that flow chart across the company so that all employees have visibility. Were I advising Company X, I would suggest they revisit their promotion criteria to ensure that every person elevated to a leadership position has a history of supporting, and amplifying, the company’s DEI values.

Many companies now know how important fostering an environment of inclusion and belonging is for employee wellbeing and company success. While no company is perfect, using DEI missteps to take an honest look at what you need to change will ensure that the aspirational DEI values you endorse move a little closer to becoming the reality.

February 17, 2022

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