Three important employment law lessons from ViacomCBS firing Nick Cannon for anti-Semitic remarks

Earlier this week, ViacomCBS announced that it had severed ties with Nick Cannon over anti-Semitic remarks he made recently on this episode of his YouTube podcast “Cannon’s Class.”

Mr. Cannon has often appeared on cable networks, MTV and TeenNick, both of which ViacomCBS owns. In connection with the separation of employment, ViacomCBS released this statement:


Yesterday, AP reported here that Mr. Cannon later apologized to the Jewish community. Mr. Cannon also issued this statement on his Facebook page in which he states that “I have no hate in my heart nor malice [sic] intentions” and “I hold myself accountable for this moment and take full responsibility…”

And that brings us to our first employment law lesson from his termination of employment.

1. Accountability.

Your Anti-Harassment (Respect In The Workplace) Policy is only as good as the paper on which it is printed unless you hold all employees, including your star employees, accountable to it. Indeed, the EEOC has identified that “the first step for creating a holistic harassment prevention program is for the leadership of an organization to establish a culture of respect in which [discrimination] is not tolerated.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that a single (or even a few) discriminatory comments must result in termination of employment. However, it does mean that the business cannot ignore them either by taking all complaints and incidents of discrimination seriously.

2. Out of sight, but not out of mind.

Mr. Cannon did not make his anti-Semitic remarks during the course and scope of his employment. Still, putting aside the issues that ViacomCBS may have with its brand by continuing to employ Mr. Cannon, there could be future HR issues too.

For example, what would happen if an employer in ViacomCBS’ shoes did not act, and someone in Mr. Cannon’s shoes later made similar anti-Semitic remarks at work? Undoubtedly, the company was already on notice that the employee was at least capable of this bigotry. But, by letting the behavior slide unchecked, in addition to eroding employee morale, the company creates a disincentive for victims to complain about bias because they may assume that the company will not take their concerns seriously. This exposes victims to further harm and could eventually undermine some valuable employer defenses when they later sue.

3. The workplace is no place for any form of discrimination.

Some have discounted the anti-Semitic remarks of Nick Cannon and, shortly before that, from Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson as taking attention away from Black Lives Matter and efforts to address racial injustice in the United States. The purpose of this blog post is not to create — let alone debate — a discrimination hierarchy between racism and anti-Semitism. Both are awful.

Instead, this third point is your reminder that discrimination against individuals based on any protected class has no place at work. Justice Neil Gorsuch recently emphasized this in the majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton Countythe Supreme Court decision that outlawed LGBT discrimination.

“[Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] tells us three times—including immediately after the words ‘discriminate against’—that our focus should be on individuals, not groups.”

Thus, if an employer discriminates against an employee because she is African American, and another employee because he is Jewish, the employer doesn’t avoid Title VII exposure as an equal opportunity jerk, the employer doubles it.

What do you take away from the Nick Cannon / ViacomCBS ordeal?

Email me. I’d love to hear from you.


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