Earlier than 2020, Jennifer Sey, a prime government at Levi Strauss & Firm and a number one candidate to be the corporate’s subsequent chief, barely used social media. Two years later, Ms. Sey was out of a job, partly, in her telling, due to her exercise on Twitter.
Ms. Sey’s uncommon exit final month from Levi’s after greater than 20 years generated a flurry of headlines, along with her claiming in a broadly circulated essay that her advocacy for college reopenings through the pandemic made her a pariah at work and in the end led to her ouster.
However the highway to her departure was sophisticated. It touched on points like whether or not firms can management the non-public speech of their workers, significantly in a interval of isolation, and the politics tied to talking on sure platforms, like Fox Information opinion exhibits.
The overwhelming majority of Ms. Sey’s tweets had been about colleges, however a few of them criticized steerage from the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, whom she accused of concern mongering. (“So when is Fauci going to cease doing the morning exhibits on Sunday, terrorizing the already fearful?” she tweeted in April 2021.)
She additionally expressed skepticism concerning the effectiveness of masking, principally for younger kids. (“At the moment there’s not sufficient proof for or towards using masks (medical or different) for wholesome people within the wider neighborhood,” she posted in Could 2020.)
Ms. Sey’s outspokenness drew criticism each inside and outdoors the corporate, together with threats of boycotts. The tweets got here when Levi’s was utilizing public well being steerage to handle protocols throughout a whole lot of shops and in distribution facilities. However Ms. Sey stated she was talking as a involved mom, not a company government. She additionally famous that Levi’s — which has been vocal about hot-button points like gun management — had not beforehand complained when she posted on social media in help of Democratic politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren or extra liberal causes.
Levi’s disputes Ms. Sey’s account of occasions, together with her claims that she was punished as a result of her views veered from “left-leaning orthodoxy” and that she walked away from a $1 million severance bundle so as to have the option converse freely concerning the firm. Levi’s stated Ms. Sey had give up relatively than negotiate an exit bundle, which might have contained a nondisclosure settlement. It “wouldn’t include a prohibition on the chief talking out about issues of public curiosity similar to faculty closures or on participating in any legally protected speech,” Kelly McGinnis, the senior vp of company affairs at Levi’s, stated in a press release.
Ms. McGinnis stated that Levi’s supported Ms. Sey’s advocacy on colleges, however that she “went far past calling for colleges to reopen, and ceaselessly used her platform to criticize public well being pointers and denounce elected officers and authorities scientists.”
She added that Ms. Sey “did this at a time in 2020 and 2021 when hospitalizations and deaths from Covid had been spiking, when the corporate had its personal workers hospitalized, and in some circumstances dying, and corporations like Levi’s had been utilizing steerage from public well being officers to implement insurance policies to maintain our workers and customers protected.”
The corporate’s social media coverage says that workers are free to debate their views however that it expects workers to guard the corporate’s “popularity and picture.”
Ms. Sey stated she didn’t assume that corporations like Levi’s wanted to endorse particular viewpoints from workers, however they need to “arise for an worker’s proper to speech on what they care about.”
Sarah Sobieraj, a professor of sociology at Tufts College, stated Ms. Sey’s state of affairs, together with her frustration with how colleagues interpreted her private views, was an instance of an more and more widespread phenomenon within the digital age generally known as “context collapse.”
“You used to have the ability to section who you’re — you could possibly go to church and behave such as you did in church and go to work and behave such as you did at work, then out with pals and behave that approach,” she stated. Now, “no matter it’s we’re saying or posting, we’re posting in entrance of all of the individuals in our lives.”
“That blurring is a part of the discomfort for Levi’s, and it’s a part of the difficulty that Jen Sey has confronted,” she added.
Ms. Sey, a former nationwide champion gymnast, was the chief advertising and marketing officer at Levi’s earlier than being promoted to model president in October 2020. She was commonly supplied as much as journalists for interviews, together with Chip Bergh, the corporate’s chief government. A mom of 4 — two of her kids are school age whereas the opposite two are 5 and seven — Ms. Sey was properly preferred internally and was an government sponsor of the corporate’s useful resource group for Black workers.
When the pandemic began, Ms. Sey was residing in San Francisco, the place Levi’s has its headquarters. She grew frightened about how younger kids like hers is likely to be harmed by public faculty closures. That was when she turned to Twitter, the place in a time of isolation she discovered different like-minded mother and father.
“I used to be used to being within the workplace and seeing a whole lot of individuals, and whereas it was work-focused, we’d chitchat within the hallways, ask about individuals’s youngsters and what’s happening of their lives,” Ms. Sey, 53, stated. “So this reference to different mother and father was significant for me. It might really feel in San Francisco that no one shared this view.”
She commonly posted about faculty closures, an particularly contentious challenge within the metropolis, and was concerned with rallies about reopening them. She stated she had taken care to symbolize herself as a mom and a personal citizen, leaving Levi’s, which is publicly traded, out of her public profiles.
“I do know it was straightforward to search out,” she stated of her position with Levi’s, “however I used to be the truth is talking for myself.”
Ms. Sey, whose commentary got here earlier than vaccines had been launched and when lecturers’ unions opposed returns, stated that she had been “inspired to tone it down” by a board member and different leaders on the firm, however that she had by no means been advised to cease posting or supplied any company social media pointers.
Final spring, Ms. Sey was requested to look on Laura Ingraham’s present on Fox Information to speak about her choice to maneuver to Denver in order that her kids might expertise in-person education. Whereas she was not recognized as a Levi’s government, the looks brought on an outcry on the firm. Round that point, Ms. Sey additionally did a YouTube interview with Naomi Wolf, who has been barred from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation.
Levi’s, like many corporations on the peak of the pandemic, held employees conferences each few weeks the place workers might ask questions anonymously. At a March 31 assembly, there have been questions on Ms. Sey’s look on Ms. Ingraham’s present.
In a message shared by Levi’s with The New York Instances, one worker wrote: “I’d not have had an issue along with her showing on Fox Information however that’s not what Ingraham Angle is. It’s Fox opinion and he or she is an particularly divisive and bigoted character who commonly assaults the very causes that Chip and the corporate champion.”
Ms. Sey stated she had been hesitant about happening the present, however having didn’t get the eye of shops like CNN, she appeared as a result of she “felt assured that I might get my message throughout and never be backed into something I didn’t need to say or agreeing with something that was maybe Covid denialism.”
“Simply because I don’t agree with every little thing she says doesn’t imply I can’t have a dialog along with her,” Ms. Sey added, pointing to the present’s excessive viewership.
Whereas Ms. Sey caught to her message and he or she stated Mr. Bergh had internally defended her proper to talk on the subject as a mom, the corporate requested Ms. Sey to carry a separate assembly with workers.
“While you give an interview to somebody who’s solid doubt on vaccines, you actually do lend some type of legitimacy to that particular person and people views,” stated Kara S. Alaimo, a professor of public relations at Hofstra College, referring to Ms. Ingraham. “I can perceive why individuals would have been upset about it, and if I used to be advising her, I don’t assume these platforms had been the best ones for sharing her views.”
Ms. Sey stated she had deleted some posts after receiving pushback on matters that may have an effect on Levi’s enterprise, together with one which was seen internally as shaming plus-size prospects for poor Covid well being outcomes. She was additionally requested by Levi’s to chorus from tweeting about matters like pharmaceutical corporations and the California governor recall.
Ms. Sey stated she unfairly confronted criticism for tweets from her husband, who was outspoken on social media about his opposition to vaccines and masks, posting feedback like: “Covid masks are obedience coaching and Covid vaccines are loyalty oaths.”
“Present me a married couple that agrees on every little thing and I’ll present you a unicorn,” stated Ms. Sey, who did reply to a few of her husband’s posts at instances. “Will we need to reside in a world the place the opinions of relations decide your employment choices?”
Ms. Sey stated her views on colleges made her a goal. “The concept of pushing for college openings bought conflated with being anti-science and a Covid denier, and I’d say neither of these issues are true,” she stated. “I take challenge with this concept that you simply can’t criticize public well being pointers, as a result of so lots of them have confirmed to be deeply flawed.”
Final October, Ms. Sey met with Mr. Bergh. She stated he had requested for approval to conduct a background test on her, a routine step for these being vetted as potential C.E.O.s. She was advised that her social media conduct was the one factor holding her candidacy again and that Levi’s wished to assessment it.
In January, Mr. Bergh stated her Twitter presence was “too problematic so that you can maintain this position of C.E.O., and there’s not a viable path ahead for you on the firm,” Ms. Sey stated. Whereas Levi’s requested her to remain till it discovered her substitute, she stated, she was not and give up.
Ms. Sey has argued that she was topic to “viewpoint discrimination” by Levi’s. She stated she had beforehand posted on social media in help of Senator Warren within the Democratic presidential primaries and about her disappointment over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020. The corporate had “not been against political speech or criticism of presidency insurance policies and even weighing in on candidates” in these situations, she stated.
Certainly, that has sophisticated the circumstances of Ms. Sey’s departure, in response to public relations consultants. Whereas corporations and company leaders have lengthy tried to keep away from wading into political debates, the heightened divides of this period have brought on Levi’s and another manufacturers to be extra outspoken on public points, together with L.G.B.T.Q. rights and immigration.
“A non-public employer can impose restrictions on workers’ speech or conduct,” Ms. Sobieraj stated. “The important thing challenge right here is the place that boundary lies and what about if you’re not working.”
Each Ms. Alaimo and Ms. Sobieraj famous that at the very least a number of the criticism that Ms. Sey confronted, together with from former gymnasts who nonetheless comply with Ms. Sey’s profession, might have appeared outsized to Levi’s as a result of ladies are inclined to face extra vitriol and harassment on-line.
Ms. Alaimo stated that “corporations have to be extra clear about what their insurance policies are.” She added: “Since 2016, we’ve seen corporations begin to take much more stances on political and social points, and we’ve seen a number of workers converse out after they disagree with them.”
As for Ms. Sey, she is completed with working within the retail business and company America, she stated. She felt vindicated final month when three members of San Francisco’s Board of Training had been voted out. She stays lively on Twitter and is engaged on a memoir “that’s centered on utilizing your voice and talking up with integrity and doing it as a lady in company America.”