Executives Behaving Badly: Can CEO Be Fired For Kathy Griffin Hate Speech?

by Lewitt Hackman
Contact

Lewitt Hackman

Neighbors don’t always get along – not even affluent neighbors living in exclusive gated communities in Bel-Air.

This was proven most recently, when the Huffington Post released security camera audio of Jeffrey Mezger yelling profanities at his neighbor Kathy Griffin and her partner Randy Bick. Warning: the audio is definitely NSFW – keep the speakers on low so as not to offend colleagues.

Mezger is the Chief Executive Officer of KB Home which is one of the largest home builders in the nation, and a publicly traded company.

Griffin, of course, is a well-known and somewhat controversial comedienne. In July she shaved her head to show support for her sister who was dying of cancer. In August she was fired by CNN for posting a photo in which she held a mask of President Donald Trump covered in fake blood. In mid-September, Griffin’s sister passed away, and more recently, she was the target of Mezger’s rant.

Mezger called Griffin, among other things, a “bald f-ing dyke” – not just obscene, but truly insensitive to Griffin’s recent loss.

The reason for Mezger’s rant?  He was upset that Griffin and Bick called the police with a noise complaint between 8 and 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. The alleged noisemakers were Mezger’s young grandchildren who were playing in the pool – supervised by the children’s mother and grandmother.

Mezger’s anger may or may not be justified, but how he expressed his anger was not. His employer acted quickly to minimize damage.

An Employer’s Right to Terminate

Some may believe what an employee does outside of the workplace is strictly the employee’s business. That’s mostly true, but only to a certain extent. And what about free speech rights?

These concerns were addressed recently, just after the Charlottesville “Alt-Right” march last August. 

Photos from Charlottesville featured individuals who were later identified by the public in social media, and tagged by Twitter user @YesYoureRacist. There was a very public call to action via social media for employers to fire the Alt-Right participants, particularly those brandishing swastikas.

Here are some legal clarifications:

First, the Bill of Rights protects citizens from our government’s attempts to quash speech – the Bill doesn’t protect employee speech from employers. There are other laws for that, as seen below.

Second, most California employees are “at will”, and can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, provided the decision is not based on race, age, religion, gender, gender identification, marital status, or other protected categories defined by state and federal laws.

California’s Labor Code section 1101-1106  prohibits employers from discriminating against employees for expressing political views. Discriminatory or adverse acts could include firing, or refusing to consider the employee for promotions, bonuses, professional training, or other opportunities. However, there are exceptions. 

For instance, if an employee’s political activity creates a conflict of interest, or if the activities interfere with work duties.  In Mezger’s case, there is some evidence KB Home’s stock prices dropped about three percent following release of the meltdown audio. As CEO, Mezger has a fiduciary duty to protect the company.

How Can Employers Reduce Risk of Wrongful Termination Claims?

Mezger’s expletive-ridden rant created a public perception problem for KB Home. But the employer in this case reacted quickly and we think, effectively.

Here’s what employers in this position should consider: 

  1. The home builder chose to slash Mezger’s year-end bonus by 25 percent. There is some question as to whether or not the CEO will even earn a bonus this year, but Mezger is on notice that his behavior affects his income.
  2. KB Home created a written record expressing that the CEO’s “personal dealings with a neighbor is unacceptable….” The record is a public filing with the securities exchange, but most other employers can just send a troublesome employee an email or memo. Either way, the employee should be informed in writing, and a copy added to the personnel file.
  3. The employer protected its interests. Though KB Home states it has full confidence in Mezger’s abilities (this may cause a problem if Mezger ever files a wrongful termination suit against KB Home in the future), the builder also states outright that Mezger will be terminated should similar incidents occur later. 

The lessons for employers?

First and foremost, make expectations clear. If those expectations are not met, consider a separation agreement as a means to offer the employee a bit of transition assistance in return for a waiver of future claims.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Lewitt Hackman | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Lewitt Hackman
Contact
more
less

Lewitt Hackman on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.