John “Papa John” Schnatter resigned as chairman of the pizza company that bears his name yesterday after confirming reports from Forbes that he used a racist slur in a conference call in May.
It wasn’t Schnatter’s first race-related blunder. Last year, he came under fire for comments about the kneeling protests of NFL players—he blamed them for falling football rating and sluggish pizza sales—and as a result stepped down as CEO of the company he founded in 1984.
The irony is that Schnatter’s most recent comments came in a call arranged to help him avoid making racist remarks. Papa John’s contracted Laundry Service, a marketing and communications company, to coach Schnatter for future public appearances. It was in a role-playing exercise that he used offensive language, including the n-word. In the same call, Schnatter downplayed his NFL comments by comparing them, favorably, to lynching. According to Forbes:
Schnatter also reflected on his early life in Indiana, where, he said, people used to drag African-Americans from trucks until they died. He apparently intended for the remarks to convey his antipathy to racism, but multiple individuals on the call found them to be offensive, a source familiar with the matter said.
It’s possible Schnatter thought that the call’s purpose made it a safe place to discuss even retrograde attitudes toward race. But as the CEO of a prominent company, he should have known that anything he said in a conference call had the potential to become public. Given his charged history, it’s surprising he wasn’t more circumspect.
Schnatter’s ouster is further indication of how little tolerance there is in corporate America for the misbehavior of executives. While crude or offensive comments might once have been ignored or waved off with an apologetic press release, executives are now being held to account as companies become increasingly sensitive to the perceptions of customers and employees, both current and potential.
A similar incident led to the firing of Johnathan Friedman, a communications executive at Netflix, who was canned by CEO Reed Hasting for his use of the n-word in conversations about racism and, later, his use of the word itself. Hastings explained in a memo to staff that “for non-Black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate or constructive (even when singing a song or reading a script).”
Once, executives might have thought their status earned them the benefit of the doubt, or placed them above the scrutiny given rank-and-file employees. No longer. In this new era, everyone is on notice.