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Paula Deen’s in a Whole Mess of Trouble

If anyone told me I would be blogging about Paula Deen, I would have said they have too much vinegar in their baked beans.

In case you haven’t been following the latest Paula Deen drama, she is being sued by a former employee who is claiming she used racist language – the “N” word – and was sexually harassed. Besides having her reputation completely tarnished, the Food Network fired her and went on record to say it would not renew her contract.

You should know there are many, many supporters of Deen; one of the news stories just this morning quoted a fan saying she would be hard pressed to find any man or woman over the age of 60 who lives in the south who hasn’t used derogatory, racist language. But, that doesn’t make it right does it? Remember a few years ago when she withheld the fact that she had diabetes? What we have are 2 strikes, but I’m not willing to give her a 3rd one.

In my opinion, she’s OUT.

I know the last thing you need in an accounting blog is flour, sugar, butter … and Paula Deen, but I think her super-fast descent is something all of us – including anyone working in an accounting firm or company or any size – should think about when it comes to workplace behavior.

Actually, what we have here is a very basic public relations problem; it’s too early to say whether the Deen camp is dealing with this properly, but let’s bring it home.

What would you, your colleagues and partners do if an employee accused you or someone else in the firm of racist language or sexual harassment?

I can’t recommend any course of action internally based on a hypothetical situation with regard to terminating the person who is being sued, but based on the tenets of good PR, here are the most viable options:

  • If the accusations are true, apologize to the employee and then take the first through some kind of sensitivity training. Put your best foot forward to let the employee know this is a serious problem.
  • If they are not true, you’re still going to have to deal with the employee, but this is the time, of course, to call in the lawyers.
  • Meet with the entire firm and explain what is going on; there’s nothing worse than not communicating with your employees about the situation. What comes from this is gossip and hearsay.
  • If the employee has already gone to the media and now the media is calling for comment, NEVER say “no comment.” Instead, come up with a short-term plan on how you’re going to deal with the media, write a statement as to what’s going one and meet with the media one on one. Transparency is key, although your lawyers will probably advise you not to say anything at all, there are ways to respond to the media to let them know the firm is dealing with the issue.
  • Send out an email and/or letter to the firm’s clients that says mostly the same thing as you would tell the media, assuring them the matter is being handled. Offer to meet with any client one on one.

Although this isn’t a complete or even a perfect list of options, the bottom line is that you’re going to face the consequences. What else would you do? How would you handle this matter?

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