News broke late Friday that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings fired his company's top communications executive, Jonathan Friedland, for "descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions" in company meetings.

It's absolutely the right decision, although I can understand why having to make it seems to have been painful. Friedland had been with the company leading communications for six years. It's a significant tenure to have to have it end so abruptly.  

Truly, it comes down to ths: As a white person in America in 2018, if you haven't figured out that you can't use this word in basically any context--well, to say the very least, you probably don't belong in a job in communications.

Hastings sent a lengthy email to all employees about the firing, which I'll include at the bottom of this post. But first, here are the 5 key reasons why firing Friedland was necessary, and why I think Hastings handled it as well as he could.    

1. Friedland's position absolutely required it.

Of all people involved in the company, the person in charge of corporate communications has to get this right. Sadly, Frieldand didn't. And if Hastings relates this correctly, Friedland seems not even to have understood how and why he got it wrong.

Also, if this were a less public-facing executive, or someone with a job that didn't involve words, maybe it's not a firing offense. But here, it was. There's simply no choice.

2. Netflix's position as a global communications company required it.

If this were a small company in an unrelated field, maybe the company would get away with something short of the employment death penalty. But here, Netflix as a company has to get this right. 

As Hastings points out in his memo to employees, Netflix airs shows that deal with this word. The company would be completely hypocritical if it didn't act.

3. Hastings explained the context.

Friedland apparently used the word in front of groups of employees, including some black employees, during two discussions about sensitive words. That's more than a little ironic, but it also shows the tone deafness.

Hastings does a pretty good job of describing succinctly the history and current use of the word. Bottom line, if black people or black artists want to use the word, that's their prerogative. But people who look like me (I'm white) just shouldn't use it. If you're white and absolutely have to refer to the word for some unusual reason--if you're writing an article like this one, for example--just call it the N-word. We all know what word you mean.

4. He explained the personal pain.

I think Hastings did a great job of humanizing Friedland and acknowledging that many people who worked with him "have mixed emotions," trying to synthesize the fact that they know and like him, with the obvious point that the head of communications can't go around nonchalantly using the N-word.

"Unfortunately, his lack of judgment in this area was too big for him to remain. We care deeply about our employees feeling safe and supported at Netflix," Hastings writes.

5. He moved quickly.

Assuming Hasting's description of the timing is correct, he learned only this past week about the second time Friedland dropped a few of these words into his speech (during a meeting of a company group called Black Employees @ Netflix, in fact).

By Friday evening, Friedland was gone. That's pretty quick timing. But there's no way an issue like this gets less complicated with age. It's also worth mentioning that Friedland did accept blame for all this, in a tweet Friday after news of his termination had been revealed.

Here's the full text of Hastings's memo announcing the firing. Let us know what you think of how he handled this in the comments below.

All:

I've made a decision to let go of Jonathan Friedland. Jonathan contributed greatly in many areas, but his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity, and is not in line with our values as a company.

The first incident was several months ago in a PR meeting about sensitive words. Several people afterwards told him how inappropriate and hurtful his use of the N-word was, and Jonathan apologised to those that had been in the meeting. We hoped this was an awful anomaly never to be repeated.

Three months later he spoke to a meeting of our Black Employees @ Netflix group and did not bring it up, which was understood by many in the meeting to mean he didn't care and didn't accept accountability for his words.

The second incident, which I only heard about this week, was a few days after the first incident; this time Jonathan said the N-word again to two of our Black employees in HR who were trying to help him deal with the original offense. The second incident confirmed a deep lack of understanding, and convinced me to let Jonathan go now.

As I reflect on this, at this first incident, I should have done more to use it as a learning moment for everyone at Netflix about how painful and ugly that word is, and that it should not be used. I realize that my privilege has made me intellectualize or otherwise minimize race issues like this. I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need.

Depending on where you live or grew up in the world, understanding and sensitivities around the history and use of the N-word can vary. Debate on the use of the word is active around the world (example) as the use of it in popular media like music and film have created some confusion as to whether or not there is ever a time when the use of the N-word is acceptable. For non-Black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate or constructive (even when singing a song or reading a script). There is not a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word in any context. The use of the phrase "N-word" was created as a euphemism, and the norm, with the intention of providing an acceptable replacement and moving people away from using the specific word. When a person violates this norm, it creates resentment, intense frustration, and great offense for many. Our show Dear White People covers some of this ground.

Going forward, we are going to find ways to educate and help our employees broadly understand the many difficult ways that race, nationality, gender identity and privilege play out in society and our organization. We seek to be great at inclusion, across many dimensions, and these incidents show we are uneven at best. We have already started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster.

Jonathan has been a great contributor and he built a diverse global team creating awareness for Netflix, strengthening our reputation around the world, and helping make us into the successful company we are today. Many of us have worked closely with Jonathan for a long time, and have mixed emotions. Unfortunately, his lack of judgment in this area was too big for him to remain. We care deeply about our employees feeling safe and supported at Netflix.

Much of this information will be in the press shortly. But any detail not in the press is confidential to employees.

--Reed

Published on: Jun 25, 2018
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