Jennifer Sey quit a top job at Levi’s to speak freely about COVID rules : NPR


Former Levi’s government Jennifer Sey speaks at a convention in 2018.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Trend


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Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Trend


Former Levi’s government Jennifer Sey speaks at a convention in 2018.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Photos for The Enterprise of Trend

Within the spring of 2020, firstly of the coronavirus pandemic, Jennifer Sey took a hard-line, controversial place: Colleges ought to keep open.

On the time, Sey was chief advertising officer at Levi Strauss & Co., with 21 years on the firm. Later within the 12 months, Sey obtained promoted to Levi’s model president — on a path to doubtlessly turn into the following CEO. As an alternative, she has now resigned.

“Finally,” Sey advised NPR, “nearly a month in the past, the CEO mentioned to me, ‘There’s simply not a path for you right here.’ You recognize, ‘It is all an excessive amount of.’ “

Sey’s resignation made a giant splash, as she mentioned she walked away from a $1 million exit package deal, which might sometimes embrace a nondisclosure settlement. Levi’s says no such supply was formally made. Both means, Sey’s exit has prompted massive questions on firms and speech.

The place is the road between private {and professional} opinions? And is that line totally different for high-level executives?

Private model vs. firm model

Sey had constructed her private model round outspokenness: She’s a former elite gymnast who has written a e-book and produced a documentary about abuses within the sport.

Throughout the pandemic, Sey took to Twitter, op-eds and native TV, talking out in opposition to shutdowns of faculties and playgrounds. She wrote concerning the affect of distant studying on college students and ultimately opposed masks mandates for kids altogether.

“I used to be at all times very cautious. Levi’s was not in my public profile,” Sey says. “I used to be talking as a mother of 4, a public faculty mother of 4.” Generally, she spoke as a resident of San Francisco, the place Levi’s relies. Sey acknowledges her skilled job was representing the Levi’s model, although she says she’s a mother and a baby advocate earlier than being a enterprise government.

However is it potential for prime executives to wall off a private marketing campaign from their firm’s picture?

“It is such a high-powered place, most individuals is not going to separate it out,” says Americus Reed, who research manufacturers and social identification on the College of Pennsylvania. “You’ll be able to’t actually be a C-suite particular person as of late and have a totally separate private model.”

Controversial interviews

Final spring, decided to ship her children to in-person faculty, Sey moved from San Francisco to Denver. And she or he filmed extra interviews: with writer and anti-vaccine campaigner Naomi Wolf and with Fox Information host Laura Ingraham, who has forged doubt on COVID-19 vaccines and measures. Sey did not focus on vaccines and says she’s absolutely vaccinated, however her selection of platform escalated controversy.

Levi’s workers started to complain to human assets and company leaders, Sey says, whereas posts on social media started calling for Levi’s to fireplace her and for customers to boycott the model. A number of the outcry Sey confronted was over her husband’s anti-vaccination tweets, with which Sey says she disagrees.

On the similar time, Sey describes receiving many messages of assist from Levi’s staff. And so she by no means stopped her public commentary on COVID-19 restrictions for kids.

She additionally stayed concerned in a marketing campaign to recall members of the San Francisco Board of Training, largely over prolonged faculty closures. The push ended this month with a landslide metropolis vote to oust three faculty board members.

Levi’s personal political positions

A key a part of the story is Levi’s personal historical past of political speech. The denim firm is a storied American model that has advocated for homosexual rights, immigrants, sure gun management measures and, most not too long ago, voting rights.

“You have to be constant,” says Charles Elson, a company governance and ethics professional on the College of Delaware. “On the one hand, they took robust positions on sure social points, with which many within the firm may disagree. But they punished her for successfully doing the identical factor.”

Levi’s spokesman Ancel Martinez, in an announcement to NPR, argues Sey’s case was not considered one of “stifling dissent,” noting that the corporate had supported Sey’s private advocacy earlier than.

“Jen went far past calling for varsity re-openings, continuously utilizing her platform to criticize public well being pointers and denounce elected officers and authorities scientists,” Martinez says. “As a prime government, her phrases and actions successfully undermined the corporate’s well being and security insurance policies, creating confusion and concern amongst workers.”

Bitter finish

When a few of San Francisco’s non-public colleges started reopening in late 2020, Sey says she made a pitch for Levi’s to take a stand alongside her: to assist San Francisco public colleges reopen.

Firm leaders turned her down, she says, although it wasn’t acrimonious. She says they argued that Levi’s would not weigh in on native points and that advocating for reopening public colleges could be unseemly since kids of many executives attended non-public colleges.

Levi’s hasn’t commented on this or different specifics of its discussions with Sey.

A few 12 months later, in late 2021, Sey acquired particular directions from human assets about matters she ought to depart alone, such because the California governor recall vote, vaccine mandates and the motives of pharma firms. She says her public statements within the media and on-line had been often tracked and assessed.

For some time, Sey felt her bosses had her again — till they did not.

“There was a way that I might misplaced the flexibility to steer inside the group as a result of so many workers had been so upset by the issues I had mentioned,” Sey says.

Elson and Reed each say this will get to the guts of the massive query: What’s the position of right this moment’s company chief? Elson argues it is to make high quality items at first rate costs — not wade into politics. However firms are more and more taking stands on social and political points, inevitably colliding with the views of some workers.

Reed notes that Sey made the one selection accessible to a employee on such a collision course: She left. As Sey sees it, she gained the last word freedom: to talk freely.