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6 learnings from how Netflix handled Jonathan Friedland

Dawn Metcalfe


6 learnings from how Netflix handled Jonathan Friedland

Dawn Metcalfe is a Dubai-based executive coach and trainer who founded PDSi, a company that provides training, mentorship and coaching. She is also the author of two books: Managing the Matrix: The Secret to Surviving and Thriving in Your Organization and The HardTalk Handbook.

Metcalfe’s second book is also a certified training programme offered by her company PDSi and it’s essentially about helping people – individuals, teams and organizations – have difficult conversations to get the results they want.

And so, when Netflix let go if its chief communications officer, Jonathan Friedland, for using the N-word, Metcalfe penned down her views on the topic:

One thing we’re often asked at HardTalk is “Can I do HardTalk in a letter or an email?” and the answer is, as so often with HardTalk, yes and no.

The first answer is ‘no’ in that HardTalk is about difficult conversations and such conversations should be, as far as possible, in person because that way you get more information and can be truly ‘present’. But, in reality, that’s not always possible and the HardTalk principles can, of course, be used to help improve our communication and the results we get no matter what the medium. And, so, the answer is also yes.

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I was moved to think about this when reading the email to all staff at Netflix from their CEO, Reed Hastings. He wrote it after firing the company’s head of communications, Jonathan Friedland.

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Shares closed at $384.48 per share, down 6.5 percent – the stock’s biggest decline in two years. However, some of the decline may be due to wider market influences as broader market indices were down in the 1 to 2.6 percent range, which according to the Wall Street Journal, was after the Trump administration was reported to be setting plans to prohibit many Chinese firms from investing in the US technology sector and blocking more technology exports to Beijing.

Hastings’ memo is written at a time of high stress and high-stakes and I think it’s a great example of how to get this kind of truly difficult communication right. Specifically, he incorporates a number of HardTalk principles:

  1. He considers language carefully using it to describe a gap and understanding its limitations. 

When describing what happened and his reaction, Hastings uses clear, straightforward language that is easy to understand. He clearly states the gap between what was expected and what happened. Starting with the truths like this is key to bringing people with you as you explain your thinking. “Jonathan contributed greatly in many areas, but his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity, and is not in line with our values as a company.”

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Furthermore, he understands that language has both denotative and connotative meanings and that it is necessary to consider what a word means to others when you use it.

“Depending on where you live or grew up in the world, understanding and sensitivities around the history and use of the N-word can vary…..When a person violates this norm, it creates resentment, intense frustration, and great offense for many.”

  1. He links his decision to the organization’s values.

Too often there is a disconnect between the values written on the wall or in the corporate marketing material and the actual behaviors or culture that we see an organization exhibit and tolerate. Even if the values are not regularly ignored or contravened they are not routinely considered or, as importantly, explicitly referenced when making and explaining decisions.

If values don’t help you make the difficult decisions then what’s the point? They become exactly what many in corporate life assume they are: fluffy and eye-roll inducing. Real leaders make sure that doesn’t happen. They know that sometimes your values mean you have to make difficult decisions and they talk about it.

  1. He takes responsibility but doesn’t make it all about him. 

Hastings shows true leadership by starting his email with:

“I’ve made a decision to let go of Jonathan Friedland.”

There’s no equivocation and no attempt to share the responsibility: he knows his name is on the door (whether figuratively or literally – I haven’t seen Netflix’s offices) and he stands behind his actions. This can’t have been an easy decision but he doesn’t talk about how hard it was for him or how difficult it will be for Friesland.

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He just gets on with it whilst still taking responsibility for what he didn’t do and trying to understand why. “As I reflect on this, at this first incident, I should have done more to use it as a learning moment for everyone at Netflix about how painful and ugly that word is, and that it should not be used. I realize that my privilege has made me intellectualize or otherwise minimize race issues like this. I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need.”

  1. He understands the need to ListenHard

“Three months later he spoke to a meeting of our Black Employees @ Netflix group and did not bring it up, which was understood by many in the meeting to mean he didn’t care and didn’t accept accountability for his words,” writes Hastings.

Just being silent isn’t enough to get others to speak up. Particularly if the subject is sensitive or there’s a disparity of power or some other reason for that person or group to worry about the consequences if they do speak. It’s important to be able to empathize and sometimes even mention the unmentionable so that the burden of bringing up the difficult subject doesn’t always lie elsewhere. This is particularly important for leaders because if they don’t bring it up, others may assume it’s not important or it’s not something that can be talked about.

  1. He talks about the future 

We often build up the courage to have the difficult conversation and then forget to FinishHard or to clarify our expectations and understanding of what needs to happen next.

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Hastings avoids this by explaining clearly that the use of the N word is “never acceptable”. “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).”

Furthermore, he also talks about what he needs to do personally: “I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need.”

  1. He watches out for the ‘halo’ bias

The human brain likes patterns. It looks out for them and then extrapolates. This can be very helpful but it can also trick us into making decisions that aren’t in fact decisions as we like to imagine them i.e. based on reality and entirely rational or Spock like. This tendency to like patterns can lead us into making mistakes such as assuming that because a person behaves well in one area they can do no wrong in another.

Hastings acknowledges Friedland’s contribution to the company, but he doesn’t let that stop him from making the call”

“Jonathan has been a great contributor and he built a diverse global team creating awareness for Netflix, strengthening our reputation around the world, and helping make us into the successful company we are today. Many of us have worked closely with Jonathan for a long time, and have mixed emotions. Unfortunately, his lack of judgment in this area was too big for him to remain. We care deeply about our employees feeling safe and supported at Netflix.”

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All in all, I think Reed Hastings did a great job in this message. He could, as he said himself, have done it earlier, of course. And this is something we must all look out for. Yes, people deserve a second chance and an opportunity to make mistakes but one also has to be careful not to let things go that should be dealt with. As we often say when working with groups around this subject, it’s like puppy training: the first time the puppy pees in the corner it’s the puppy’s fault but, if you let it go by without comment, you become responsible for setting the expectation that puddles are something you are happy to live with.

“The first incident was several months ago in a PR meeting about sensitive words. Several people afterwards told him how inappropriate and hurtful his use of the N-word was, and Jonathan apologized to those that had been in the meeting. We hoped this was an awful anomaly never to be repeated.… The second incident, which I only heard about this week, was a few days after the first incident; this time Jonathan said the N-word again to two of our black employees in HR who were trying to help him deal with the original offense. The second incident confirmed a deep lack of understanding, and convinced me to let Jonathan go now.”

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You could also argue that he could have been more specific when talking about the future: “Going forward, we are going to find ways to educate and help our employees broadly understand the many difficult ways that race, nationality, gender identity and privilege play out in society and our organization. We seek to be great at inclusion, across many dimensions, and these incidents show we are uneven at best. We have already started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster.”

You wouldn’t exactly call any of those ‘smart’ objectives but it is early days and even here he talks about the need to get better and is real about previous and current failings.

The stock price of Netflix may have gone down but I bet morale and pride has gone up and, if they needed it, their ability to hire has just been enhanced too. Well done Netflix! And congratulations Reed Hastings on setting a great example of how to communicate.


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