May 25, 2022
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Earlier than 2020, Jennifer Sey, a prime government at Levi Strauss & Firm and a main candidate to be the corporate’s subsequent chief, barely used social media. Two years later, Ms. Sey was out of a job, partially, 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 street to her departure was difficult. It touched on points like whether or not firms can management the non-public speech of their staff, notably 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 faculties, however a few of them criticized guidance from the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, whom she accused of fear 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 in regards to the effectiveness of masking, largely for younger kids. (“At the moment there may be not sufficient proof for or in opposition to using masks (medical or different) for wholesome people within the wider neighborhood,” she posted in Might 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 mentioned 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 assist 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 package deal so as to have the ability converse freely in regards to the firm. Levi’s mentioned Ms. Sey had give up reasonably than negotiate an exit package deal, which might have contained a nondisclosure settlement. It “wouldn’t comprise a prohibition on the manager talking out about issues of public curiosity corresponding to faculty closures or on partaking in any legally protected speech,” Kelly McGinnis, the senior vp of company affairs at Levi’s, mentioned in a assertion.

Ms. McGinnis mentioned that Levi’s supported Ms. Sey’s advocacy on faculties, however that she “went far past calling for faculties to reopen, and regularly used her platform to criticize public well being tips 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 staff hospitalized, and in some circumstances dying, and firms like Levi’s had been utilizing steerage from public well being officers to implement insurance policies to preserve our staff and shoppers secure.”

The corporate’s social media coverage says that staff are free to talk about their views however that it expects staff to defend the corporate’s “fame and picture.”

Ms. Sey mentioned she didn’t suppose that firms like Levi’s wanted to endorse particular viewpoints from staff, however they need to “rise up for an worker’s proper to speech on what they care about.”

Sarah Sobieraj, a professor of sociology at Tufts College, mentioned 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 frequent phenomenon within the digital age generally known as “context collapse.”

“You used to have the ability to section who you’re — you would 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 buddies and behave that method,” she mentioned. 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 often supplied up to 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 staff.

When the pandemic began, Ms. Sey was residing in San Francisco, the place Levi’s has its headquarters. She grew nervous about how younger kids like hers may 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 dad and mom.

“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, mentioned. “So this reference to different dad and mom was significant for me. It may really feel in San Francisco that no person shared this view.”

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March 24, 2022, 5:00 p.m. ET

She often posted about faculty closures, an particularly contentious challenge within the metropolis, and was concerned with rallies about reopening them. She mentioned she had taken care to characterize 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 discover,” she mentioned of her function with Levi’s, “however I used to be actually talking for myself.”

Ms. Sey, whose commentary got here earlier than vaccines had been launched and when academics’ unions opposed returns, mentioned 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 informed to cease posting or supplied any company social media tips.

Final spring, Ms. Sey was requested to seem on Laura Ingraham’s present on Fox Information to discuss her choice to transfer to Denver in order that her kids may expertise in-person education. Whereas she was not recognized as a Levi’s government, the looks precipitated 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 firms on the peak of the pandemic, held employees conferences each few weeks the place staff may 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 might not have had a downside 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 persona who often assaults the very causes that Chip and the corporate champion.”

Ms. Sey mentioned she had been hesitant about happening the present, however having failed to get the eye of shops like CNN, she appeared as a result of she “felt assured that I may 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 the whole lot 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 mentioned Mr. Bergh had internally defended her proper to converse on the subject as a mom, the corporate requested Ms. Sey to maintain a separate assembly with staff.

“While you give an interview to somebody who’s solid doubt on vaccines, you actually do lend some form of legitimacy to that individual and people views,” mentioned 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 suppose these platforms had been the suitable ones for sharing her views.”

Ms. Sey mentioned she had deleted some posts after receiving pushback on subjects which 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 subjects like pharmaceutical firms and the California governor recall.

Ms. Sey mentioned she unfairly confronted criticism for tweets from her husband, who was outspoken on social media about his opposition to vaccines and masks, posting comments like: “Covid masks are obedience coaching and Covid vaccines are loyalty oaths.”

“Present me a married couple that agrees on the whole lot and I’ll present you a unicorn,” mentioned Ms. Sey, who did reply to a few of her husband’s posts at instances. “Do we would like to stay in a world the place the opinions of relations decide your employment choices?”

Ms. Sey mentioned her views on faculties made her a goal. “The thought of pushing for college openings received conflated with being anti-science and a Covid denier, and I might say neither of these issues are true,” she mentioned. “I take challenge with this concept that you simply can’t criticize public well being tips, as a result of so lots of them have confirmed to be deeply flawed.”

Final October, Ms. Sey met with Mr. Bergh. She mentioned he had requested for approval to conduct a background examine on her, a routine step for these being vetted as potential C.E.O.s. She was informed 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 mentioned her Twitter presence was “too problematic for you to maintain this function of C.E.O., and there’s not a viable path ahead for you on the firm,” Ms. Sey mentioned. Whereas Levi’s requested her to keep till it discovered her alternative, she mentioned, she was not and give up.

Ms. Sey has argued that she was topic to “viewpoint discrimination” by Levi’s. She mentioned she had beforehand posted on social media in assist of Senator Warren within the Democratic presidential primaries and about her unhappiness over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020. The corporate had “not been opposed to political speech or criticism of presidency insurance policies and even weighing in on candidates” in these cases, she mentioned.

Certainly, that has difficult the circumstances of Ms. Sey’s departure, in accordance to public relations specialists. Whereas firms and company leaders have lengthy tried to keep away from wading into political debates, the heightened divides of this period have precipitated 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 staff’ speech or conduct,” Ms. Sobieraj mentioned. “The important thing challenge right here is the place that boundary lies and what about while you’re not working.”

Each Ms. Alaimo and Ms. Sobieraj famous that a minimum of a few of the criticism that Ms. Sey confronted, together with from former gymnasts who nonetheless observe Ms. Sey’s profession, may have appeared outsized to Levi’s as a result of girls have a tendency to face extra vitriol and harassment on-line.

Ms. Alaimo mentioned that “firms want to be extra clear about what their insurance policies are.” She added: “Since 2016, we’ve seen firms begin to take a lot extra stances on political and social points, and we’ve seen a lot of staff converse out once they disagree with them.”

As for Ms. Sey, she is finished with working within the retail business and company America, she mentioned. She felt vindicated final month when three members of San Francisco’s Board of Schooling 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.”

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