CHAUDHRI: Netflix takes hard line with employees staging revolt

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Employee activism is perhaps as old as the hills but it has never been celebrated quite as much as it is now.

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Employees feel emboldened, maybe even entitled, to cast aspersions on their own employers if the situation calls for it. Often caught flatfooted, employers meekly issue a public apology, hoping any lasting memory of the debacle is soon forgotten.

Regardless of who is right or wrong, engaging in a public fracas with your very own employees is never popular.

In the last few weeks, Netflix has found itself in the very public fracas I speak of, unraveling before our eyes.

On Oct. 5, the streaming giant released a comedy special of prolific comedian Dave Chappelle. A central focus of The Closer is Chappelle’s fraught relationship with the transgendered community, which has inadvertently evolved into a defining characteristic of the comic’s career. And Chappelle’s latest comedy special has reignited the debate as some Netflix employees have signaled the special itself is transphobic.

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A staffer who lead the trans employee resource group at Netflix was reportedly terminated for leaking confidential metrics of the special; some of which was later reported in a Bloomberg report. Notably, this employee was also organizing an employee walkout on Oct. 20 protesting Netflix’s release of the special.

A Netflix spokesperson confirmed the termination of the employee, saying, “We have let go of an employee for sharing confidential, commercially sensitive information outside the company.”

Netflix also suspended a trans employee, Terra Field, who tweeted that Dave Chappelle “attacks the trans community” in the special.

Netflix denied suspending Field for the tweet, claiming the suspension was a result of Field and two other employees attempting to sit in on a director meeting they were not meant to be at.

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It’s clear that instead of bending to overt employee defiance on a controversial topic, Netflix drew a public line, firmly placing the giant on one side and its employees on the other. In support of its decision to terminate the employee responsible for the leak, the media magnate said “maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company.”

  1. Lawyer Sunira Chaudhri is a Partner at Workly Law.

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  2. Sunira Chaudhri is an employment and labour lawyer and partner at Levitt Sheikh Chaudhri Swann. She sheds light on some questions for employees during COVID-19.

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  3. Lawyer Sunira Chaudhri is a Partner at Workly Law.

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The streaming service has undoubtedly placed the culture of its workplace in question. Releasing content that marginalizes its own employees seems par for the course for a video streaming service of its size. Yet somehow, releasing content that offends employees also obviously feels wrong and unreconcilable.

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Noting the discordance, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos wrote internally to staff saying in part, “Externally, particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.”

As much as an employer may want to distance itself from it’s product; insisting that it’s manner of revenue generation is separate from its core principles, it simply can’t. You are your product. Warts and all.

Employees breathe life into organizations. How employees choose to express themselves is an obvious indicator of not only how the organization is seen, but in fact what it actually is.

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On to this week’s questions:

Q. I have health problems (including diabetes and high blood pressure) as well as thyroid issues. I have not taken the vaccine because of this. My employer has placed me on an unpaid administrative leave. My doctor won’t give me a note that says I should wait to get the vaccine until more is known. Do I have any chance of getting my job back?

A. Maybe not. Currently recognized medical exemptions include a history of severe allergic reaction to a component of the COVID-19 vaccine and a history of myocarditis for individuals who are 12-17 years old. Even if your employer’s vaccine policy is more permissive, without a vaccine there may be certain aspects of your role you cannot do (like travel or attend indoor events). If you don’t get the vaccine now, suggest a timeframe to your employer within which you will educate yourself further and take the vaccine once you have more time to understand your potential risk for contraindications. You can also offer to wear PPE and test weekly (although this option may not be as safe as obtaining the vaccine itself). Even with these suggestions your employer may determine you’re incapable to fulfill the role and/or your continued employment may be unsafe to the workplace. To turn this around and keep your job, the safest bet is to get the vaccine.

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Q. My employer did not pay a bonus last year and this year it has also not confirmed if a bonus will be paid yet or not. When I told my manager that I was upset about this he told me “there is the door if you don’t like it.” I was upset and left but did not mean to quit my job. When I came back my manager said I quit and did not want me to come back. Is there anything I can do?

A. While it isn’t ideal that you walked out, a moment of disagreement or anger is generally not considered an act of resignation by the courts. Confirm you’re available to work immediately in writing. If you’re employer does not accept you back, then get legal advice as you may consider seeking reinstatement or wrongful dismissal damages.

Have a workplace issue? Maybe I can help! Email me at sunira@worklylaw.com and your question may be featured in a future article.

The content of this article is general information only and is not legal advice.

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