May 21, 2022
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Dubroff: Workplace law experts weigh in on the slap heard ’round the world

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Will Smith’s slap to the face of Chris Rock at the March 27 Oscar awards was not just appalling and wrong.

It was also a slap to the face of any manager who is trying to navigate the modern workplace. And it put a spotlight on the challenges of face-to-face encounters in the post-pandemic environment — in or outside the office.

Watching the events unfold in stunned silence, I had a flashback. Half a dozen years ago, I terminated a Business Times employee on the spot when a dispute over a semi-colon spiraled out of control and ended in an altercation. It may sound strange, but it was not a laughing matter, then or now.

Henry Dubroff
Henry Dubroff
From the Editor

As I write this column two days after the incident, Smith has apologized to Rock, and Rock apparently is not going to press charges. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is conducting a review and, at least according to reporting by NBC, it has the power to expel Smith or take away his Oscar. As a lesser punishment, it could also bar Smith from future awards ceremonies.

Neither Smith nor Rock is an employee of the Academy, but the Oscars are a workplace event and both were there in their professional capacities, Smith as an actor and nominee and Rock as a presenter.

For some guidance about the workplace legalities of the slapping incident, I turned to three of the Central Coast’s top employment law experts.

Such an incident “would likely result in an immediate termination in the ‘real’ world,” Kathy Eppright, chair of the employment practice group at AMB law in San Luis Obispo, said in an email intervew. The danger of not acting is setting a precedent that others may take advantage of, she added.

Jeff Dinkin, a shareholder at the Santa Barbara office of Stradling, agreed that management must act decisively. “The Smith/Rock incident highlights the need for a workplace violence policy that is enforced in a consistent manner,” he wrote in an email.

For Smith, that would likely mean termination “under a policy to demonstrate to all employees that workplace violence is not tolerated no matter who is the perpetrator.”

Although Rock gets wide latitude as a comic, his off-color comment about Jade Pinkett Smith’s short hair “could be harassment” in a workplace context, because she is suffering from alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss. He said it was unlikely Rock would be terminated in a workplace situation, but the entire incident is a “great opportunity for educating the workforce about proper workplace conduct” and the consequences of breaking the rules.

Jon Light, managing partner at LightGabler in Camarillo, took a more nuanced view. He said that because Smith was not employed by the Academy for the show, he falls under rules governing third parties, akin to a vendor or customer doing something unwanted toward an employee. In that case, Light said, the incident has to be “foreseeable” in order for the Academy to have liability.

When it comes to the Academy review, since it probably doesn’t have any legal liability, Light said a ruling that “you’re banned from future events,” is a likely outcome.

Beyond the legalities of the modern workplace and the modern Oscars, a few things should be said.

First, the hypotheticals are jarring. Had this been a slap between a man and a woman or two people of different races, the social aftershocks might have threatened the existence of the Academy itself.

Second, these are, after all, actors. Smith’s on-stage semi-apology during his Oscar acceptance was odd. Where those real tears? Or tears summoned for the moment so he could make amends to the Academy and to the Williams sisters, whose dad he portrayed in “King Richard”?

Finally, there are economic factors at work. Sponsors and backers may shy away from Smith if he appears to be damaged goods. Rock will benefit from the sympathy. The Academy is reaping a windfall of post-Oscar buzz, albeit with a negative vibe.

The question for the Academy board is not so much what is legal. It is, what values does the Academy want to stand for? School boards and election commissions will be watching what the Academy does and bracing for the fallout. 

And for the rest of us: A look at the violence in the workplace chapter of your handbook would be a wise move.

• Henry Dubroff is the owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.