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The Chappelle controversy is a test of what kind of workplace Netflix wants to be

Dave Chappelle
Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published

Netflix has a workplace culture so distinct that co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings wrote a whole book about it. But backlash over comedian Dave Chappelle’s most recent standup special, The Closer, is putting the streaming titan’s culture to the test.

The company is under fire for two things: its decision to air the special, which includes jokes deemed by many to be transphobic and harmful to the LGBTQ community, and how its leadership has handled employees’ pushback over the decision.

Now at least 1,000 Netflix employees are expected to participate in an Oct. 20 walkout led by the company’s trans employee resource group, protesting management’s response to their concerns. “Our leadership has shown us they do not uphold the values to which we are held,” one walkout organizer wrote in an internal message.

So what are those values, exactly? Here are a few of the tensions now playing out at Netflix.

Radical transparency versus the fear of retaliation

One of Netflix’s biggest cultural tenets is its commitment to radical transparency, in which employees at all levels are encouraged to give blunt feedback without fear of retaliation.

But some of the company’s recent actions may send a different message to staff about the risks of speaking out. First, Netflix suspended (then reinstated) Terra Field, a trans employee who wrote a viral Twitter thread criticizing the choice to air the special. Netflix said Field was suspended not for her public comments, but because she and two other employees had attended a director-level meeting uninvited.

Next came the news that Netflix had fired a leader of the trans employee resource group who was organizing the walkout, alleging the person had leaked internal metrics to the press.

The company has emphasized that these disciplinary actions were unrelated to the employees’ outspokenness about the Chappelle special. A Netflix spokesperson told Variety, “We support artistic expression for our creators. We also encourage our employees to disagree openly.”

Speaking up versus being heard

The walkout plans were sparked by a memo from Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos in which he doubled down on justifying the Chappelle special, writing, “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

The memo struck some employees as tone-deaf—not necessarily because Sarandos stood by the special, but because he seemed to close the discussion without indicating that other perspectives would be incorporated into future decision-making. “The memo was very disrespectful,” a Netflix staffer told The Hollywood Reporter. “It didn’t invite a robust conversation about this hard topic, and that’s normally how things go.”

Field, the author of the viral tweet, elaborated on why the company’s response has rankled, arguing in a recent blog post that “[w]hen a company like Netflix says something like, ‘We do not believe this content is harmful to the transgender community’ you can be virtually certain that not a single trans person was involved in that decision.” (Quartz has reached out to Netflix for comment, and will update the story with any response.)

After all, trans and LGBTQ people both within and outside of Netflix have been telling the company that Chappelle’s comments do, in fact, harm them—responding not just to this special, but his special from two years ago, Sticks & Stones. Employees also had raised concerns about The Closer before it was released. It’s easy to see why they feel that while they’re speaking out, leadership isn’t really listening.

That’s a far cry from what employees have come to expect from the company. Field also notes in her blog post that just before the Chappelle controversy broke, she’d actually tweeted her thanks to Sarandos and Hastings “for leading a company where an engineer can give them (or anyone else) feedback on what they’re doing and actually expect a thoughtful response, and for enabling us to make Netflix a great place for trans people to work.”

“Well,” Field says now, “that certainly aged like milk.”

Artistic expression versus diversity and inclusion

As Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw recently observed, the Chappelle crisis has now put Netflix in a position where it’s “stuck between its commitment to artists and its commitment to being a progressive employer.”

On one hand, Netflix has been vocal about seeking to improve diversity and inclusion both within the company and in the content it produces for its platform. Sarandos told CNBC in February that in producing films and TV shows, it was incumbent upon the company to ask, “Whose voice is missing? Is this portrayal authentic? Who is excluded?”

In his memo to staff in the aftermath of the Chappelle special, Sarandos noted that “we’re working hard to ensure more people see their lives reflected on screen and that under-represented communities are not defined by the single story,” calling out Netflix shows like Sex Education and Orange Is the New Black, which feature trans, nonbinary, and gay characters.

Some employees question how these values are compatible with giving a platform to (and spending a reported $24.1 million on) Chappelle’s The Closer, which includes comments likening trans people’s genitalia to Beyond Burgers and has Chapelle declaring himself “team TERF,” referring to trans exclusionary radical feminists who refuse to recognize trans women as women.

Sarandos says that Chappelle’s comedy doesn’t cross the line on inciting hate; rather, his standup “makes harsh jokes about many different groups, which is his style and a reason his fans love his comedy and commentary.” He also says that Netflix supports “artistic freedom to help attract the best creators, and push back on government and other censorship requests.”

The company’s leadership clearly believes that it’s possible to both champion inclusivity and create what Sarandos calls “provocative” content like Chappelle’s. But the internal roiling at Netflix is a reminder that employees are increasingly willing to call out companies when their actions don’t seem consistent with their values. As Netflix itself admits in the jobs section of its website: “It’s easy to write admirable values; it’s harder to live them.”

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