Paula Deen: Cooking Up Some Disrespect

By | 2013-07-02T09:41:55+00:00 July 2nd, 2013|Categories: Respectful Workplace|2 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, television cooking celebrity Paula Deen was fired from the Food Network as a result of her admission that she used racial (and other) slurs in the past. Deen’s admissions came via deposition testimony she gave last month in a harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee. As a result, the Food Network cancelled her show. As the scandal broke, former employees came forward with allegations of ugly discrimination. One claimed an African American employee was repeatedly referred to as “my little monkey.” Another claimed Deen’s brother told him he had no civil rights in their workplace.

At the root of this alleged behavior is a fundamental disrespect for others. Assuming the allegations are true (and note that Deen did not deny using the “n” word in the past), it is clear she viewed these employees as “different” and therefore beneath her. This kind of thinking is polarizing, to say the least, and sets the stage for the disrespectful behaviors reported to have occurred (not to mention the legal liability issues we have already seen).

Organizational leaders should take note of this case as an example of a big old “don’t.” Workplace behavior can be contagious. Respect begets more respect. Disrespect works the same way.

While many Deen fans are urging forgiveness, the issue is not whether or not Deen should be forgiven. That is between Deen and the individuals she allegedly hurt. Rather, the issue is what kind of a workplace environment should the Food Network tolerate. In my opinion, they made the right call.

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About the Author:

Sindy Warren
Sindy Warren is the principal of Warren & Associates LLC and an Associate Partner of Legacy Business Cultures. She is an HR and employment law consultant and uses her legal expertise to help clients create and maintain positive and legally compliant employment practices. Sindy creates and delivers training programs on harassment and discrimination and conducts independent workplace investigations. Sindy received her J.D. with honors from Stanford University. She received her B.S. in Psychology from Tufts University (Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude).


  1. Jennifer Reed July 31, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I think it would depend a lot on whether or not she was doing that on the set of her show… Does Food Network have a right to be intolerant of things that an employee does outside of their studios? Additionally, she did not deny using the “n” word in the past; did anybody think to as how far in the past?

    The other thing is that the culture of her generation (also mine, so I recognize them!) were significantly different than they are today. My grandmother used the phrase “you little monkey!” as a term of endearment when she noticed that someone (usually one of the grandchildren) was trying to pull the wool over her eyes about something. My parents and grandparents used the term “nigra”; this was not considered offensive. In my adult life, as mores changed, I learned not to use these phrases, and I just wonder if she has too…

    • Sindy Warren July 31, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Interesting point, Jennifer. I believe context matters, and your grandmother’s term of endearment strikes me as quite different than the same words used in the context of a white supervisor speaking to an African American employee. Also, as far as the discrimination laws go, the intent of the alleged discriminator is not always determinative. The effect on the workplace in general and the plaintiff employee in particular is of more interest to courts. That is the way the statutes are written.

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