A “phone call heard ‘round the world” in May 2020 led to a social media firestorm, renewed demands for reflecting on race in our society, and the employment termination of the woman who made the call. Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her dog unleashed in New York’s Central Park when a black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to leash her dog. After she rebuffed him, Mr. Cooper, an avid birdwatcher, said, “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” He then offered a treat to the unleashed dog. Ms. Cooper grabbed her dog and shouted, “Don’t you touch my dog!” Mr. Cooper started recording her on his phone.
Then Ms. Cooper’s response definitively changed the course of their interaction. She called 911 and, while dialing, told Mr. Cooper, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” She did just that, and asked for the police to be sent immediately. Referring to Mr. Cooper’s race three times in the course of her call, Ms. Cooper over-dramatized the situation and portrayed Mr. Cooper as an aggressor. Ms. Cooper apparently disregarded how her unfounded accusations could put Mr. Cooper at risk simply for being a black man watching birds in the park.
Ms. Cooper’s actions were widely seen as an example of white privilege on the one hand, and the insidious ways that racism continues to confront minority members with daily humiliations and threats of violence. Reaction to Ms. Cooper’s entitlement earned her the social media moniker “Central Park Karen.”
An Accusation of Bigotry is Not Discrimination
In the wake of their heated dispute, a social media frenzy exploded. Ms. Cooper was fired from her job as a Portfolio Manager at investment firm Franklin Templeton the following day. The company released tweets related to the incident. One announced the termination of “the employee involved” in the Central Park incident, and ended by saying, “We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.”
That tweet was one of the pieces Ms. Cooper used to support a lawsuit she filed against Franklin Templeton for employment discrimination, among other claims. Asserting she was discriminated against on the basis of both her race and sex, Ms. Cooper’s legal complaint stated that her race was continuously “implicated” because her employer linked its termination of Ms. Cooper to its stance against racism.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss her complaint, which the court granted. The court found Ms. Cooper’s arguments to be lacking, as “racism is not a race.” In other words, “discrimination on the basis of alleged racism is not the same as discrimination on the basis of race.” Franklin Templeton did not fire Ms. Cooper because of her race, nor did it seem to project any discriminatory animus that could form the basis of a legal claim.
What Employers Should Consider
In light of Ms. Cooper’s allegations and the court’s ruling, what should employers keep in mind as they discipline employees, respond to issues of public concern, or simply go about their daily business? There are a few key things any business should consider:
- Have clear written policies: whether concerning social media use, employee discipline, or anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, make sure your employees know where you stand. Equally important, follow your policies and implement them fairly and in line with your company values.
- Provide regular training: having a strong employee handbook is not enough to ensure everyone understands and has retained what is expected of them. Regular trainings, whether virtual or in person, provide an opportunity to remember what is expected and to ask questions.
- Investigate appropriately: conduct an investigation into complaints (whether brought by an employee or a news story) that is headed by knowledgeable and trained specialists, whether internal or external. Make sure to follow best practices for conducting workplace investigations.
- Consider all angles: if the employee you are considering disciplining is a member of a protected class, or your company’s conduct could be interpreted as retaliatory, take a moment to devise a clear and fair plan for moving forward. Doing so can help your business better follow its politics without creating unnecessary confusion.
- Have a clear response plan: in case of a public incident, such as Mr. Cooper’s, it is crucial to make sure human resources and your legal department (or employment counsel) have developed a strategy for responding. All legal considerations should be made before things go to communications for any sort of public response. Of course, you also want top-notch communications professionals to craft a message that embodies your company’s values and stays within the lines established by your counselors.
No employer desires to confront the sort of public hysteria that surrounded Ms. Cooper’s actions. Yet when such an instance does arise, it is possible to protect yourself legally while continuing to live out your values.