What Every Business Leader Should Learn From the NFL and Jon Gruden Email Controversy



Last month, Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after a series of troubling emails became public. The emails, dating from 2011 to 2018 when the coach worked for ESPN, included racist, homophobic, and sexist remarks. The correspondence came to light during an investigation of misconduct with The Washington Football team, in which more than 650,000 emails were collected. 

Late last week, news broke that Gruden is suing the NFL and it’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, for damages. Gruden’s suit alleges that the NFL selectively leaked his emails for the purpose of forcing him out of his job and ruining his reputation. To date, none of the the other 650,000 emails have been made public.

Where the focus should be after the release of the emails

Through all the discussion about this evolving series of events, what doesn’t get talked about enough are the people who were harmed by the content of the emails, and the extent of the harm caused. Gruden apologized, however, simple apologies don’t erase the emotional damage and toll that comments such as these bring.

In contexts like these, particularly when we think about the workplace, we can’t think of a comment, purely as a comment. If racist, homophobic, and sexist things are being written in emails to colleagues, especially those who are in positions of leadership, you have to ask, what are the more deeply held beliefs associated with those comments. And worse yet, how have those beliefs impacted how those in leadership positions treat others who are part of the communities disparaging marks were made, and what is the impact of that treatment on their careers.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players’ Association, was the subject of a racist trope Gruden used in one of the emails. In speaking of the remark, Smith acknowledged “Racism like this comes from the fact that I’m at the same table as they are and they don’t think someone who looks like me belongs.”

Business is about belonging. When your customers and your team feel like they belong with you, they reward you with their loyalty. As much as it would be wonderful if we lived in a world where diversity and inclusion were widely accepted and embraced, the reality is, there are still people who aren’t on board with it. There are still leaders within organizations who feel people from certain groups don’t belong. Data shows that most White business leaders feel diversity is a distraction.

The fact is, if you have people in leadership positions in your organization who think and behave like Jon Gruden did in those emails, then you have to take a hard look to see if they are creating an environment within your culture that makes team members from underrepresented and marginalized groups feel like they don’t belong.

Smith noted he’s taking the comments in stride: “This is not the first racist comment that I’ve heard and it probably will not be the last. This is a thick skin job for someone with dark skin, just like it has been for many people who look like me and work in corporate America.”

No one on your team should feel like they have to have “thick skin” to do their job, especially when it comes to being on the receiving end of racist, homophobic, or sexist behaviors. 

Jon Gruden’s resignation doesn’t undo the harm he caused. As an organization, you’ll have to work to ensure that everyone on your team, especially your leaders, make it a priority to build and nurture a culture where harm to your team is minimized, and making everyone feel like they belong is prioritized.

And if you do discover that people within your organization have caused harm toward others with their words, emails, and actions, it isn’t enough to just remove or reprimand the offender.

Take the time to find ways to support those who were harmed, and where possible explore the extent of it. Then you’ll get a better idea of ways you can support those team members in healing, and helping them feel like your organization is a safe space for them, and others like them to thrive.

One critical way to do that, is to relentlessly implement and nurture any systems that exist within your culture that support making everyone on the team feel like they belong, and dismantling any systems and aspects of your culture that make people feel like they don’t. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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