UPDATE: Oct. 20, 2021: On the eve of Netflix's trans employee walkout, CEO Ted Sarandos told Variety he "screwed up." He continued, "I should have led with a lot more humanity. Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything. I didn't do that."
Netflix has fired the co-lead of its trans employee resource group who organized an upcoming walkout, according to a report from The Verge.
The Oct. 20 demonstration was planned in response to the media company's handling of employee dissent regarding The Closer, Dave Chappelle's latest stand-up. The main point of concern for the walkout: Netflix's suspension of trans software engineer Terra Field following her criticism of the special, wherein Chappelle punches down on the trans community and laments "cancel culture."
The Netflix-Chappelle saga is yet another case study in how corporate approaches to internal and external backlash can define an employer's brand — particularly in destructive ways.
On Oct. 6, the day after The Closer's premiere, Field tweeted, "I work at @netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness — all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups." Shortly after, Field and two other employees attended Netflix's quarterly business review to speak out, despite not being invited.
Following that incident, Netflix suspended all three employees, according to an Oct. 11 report. A company spokesperson clarified in a statement to Variety that "it is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show. Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so." The company reinstated Field Oct. 13; however, it appears tensions remain high internally.
Many LGBTQ employees felt jilted and Netflix's trans ERG organized a walkout. Just before the weekend, The Verge reported that the media company fired the lead organizer, who said they were let go due to suspicion of leaking The Closer metrics to Bloomberg. (The employee, who is Black and pregnant, requested they remain anonymous in their Verge statement for fear of online harassment.) The employee said they only shared the metrics internally and, in fact, discouraged colleagues from leaking information to preserve the walkout's integrity.
"All these White people are going around talking to the press and speaking publicly on Twitter and the only person who gets fired is the Black person, who was quiet the entire time," the former employee told The Verge. "That's absurd, and just further shows that Black trans people are the ones being targeted in this conversation." HR Dive reached out to Netflix for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.
Since Chappelle's special aired, company CEO Ted Sarandos has doubled down on the company's decisions. In an internal memo obtained by Variety, Sarandos waxed poetic about artistic freedom. "We don't allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don't believe The Closer crosses that line," he said.
"I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited, but our members enjoy it," he added.
Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act. This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don't want us to be.— Terra Field (@RainofTerra) October 7, 2021
A poignant point for HR professionals: In Field's initial Twitter thread, she outlined why Chappelle's special wasn't just "offensive," but genuinely harmful to the trans community. In the special, the comedian underscored that sex and gender identity are static ("gender is a fact") and was flippant to the concerns around J.K. Rowling's anti-trans ideologies. He also made disturbing comments about trans folks' genitalia and thumbed his nose at homophobic backlash in favor of other concerns, such as violent racism.
Field highlighted how transphobic jokes lay the foundation for violence, specifically against trans women of color. "It is not some neutral act. This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don't want us to be," Field wrote on Twitter.
She then proceeded to list some of the Black trans women murdered in 2021: Tyianna Alexander, Bianca Bankz, Dominique Jackson, Alexus Braxton, Diamond Kyree Sanders, Jaida Peterson, Dominique Lucious, Remy Fennell, Tiara Banks, Tiffany Thomas, Keri Washington, Danika Henson, Serenity Hollis, Thomas Hardin, Aidelen Evans, Taya Ashton, Shai Vanderpump, Tierramarie Lewis, Pooh Jonson, Disaya Monaee, and Briana Hamilton, to name a few. (As of October 2021, a Human Rights Campaign fatal violence tracker recorded 40 transgender or gender non-conforming people "fatally shot or killed by other violent means" in the U.S. this year.)
"We understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content, but titles which could increase real-world harm — such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence, etc.," Sarandos said in an Oct. 11 memo obtained by Variety. "While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed news of the firing. It was first reported by The Verge. Additionally, Dave Chappelle's name was misspelled.