Jennifer Sey Was a Candidate to Lead Levi’s. Then She Started Tweeting. – The New York Times


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Jennifer Sey left Levi’s after her advocacy against school closures and mask mandates for children gained attention. She says it’s a matter of free speech. The company disagrees.
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Before 2020, Jennifer Sey, a top executive at Levi Strauss & Company and a leading candidate to be the company’s next leader, barely used social media. Two years later, Ms. Sey was out of a job, in part, in her telling, because of her activity on Twitter.
Ms. Sey’s unusual exit last month from Levi’s after more than 20 years generated a flurry of headlines, with her claiming in a widely circulated essay that her advocacy for school reopenings during the pandemic made her a pariah at work and ultimately led to her ouster.
But the road to her departure was complicated. It touched on issues like whether corporations can control the personal speech of their employees, particularly in a period of isolation, and the politics tied to speaking on certain platforms, like Fox News opinion shows.
The vast majority of Ms. Sey’s tweets were about schools, but some of them criticized guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, whom she accused of fear mongering. (“So when is Fauci going to stop doing the morning shows on Sunday, terrorizing the already fearful?” she tweeted in April 2021.)
She also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of masking, mostly for young children. (“Currently there is not enough evidence for or against the use of masks (medical or other) for healthy individuals in the wider community,” she posted in May 2020.)
Ms. Sey’s outspokenness drew criticism both inside and outside the company, including threats of boycotts. The tweets came when Levi’s was using public health guidance to manage protocols across hundreds of stores and in distribution centers. But Ms. Sey said she was speaking as a concerned mother, not a corporate executive. She also noted that Levi’s — which has been vocal about hot-button issues like gun control — had not previously complained when she posted on social media in support of Democratic politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren or more liberal causes.
Levi’s disputes Ms. Sey’s account of events, including her claims that she was punished because her views veered from “left-leaning orthodoxy” and that she walked away from a $1 million severance package in order to be able speak freely about the company. Levi’s said Ms. Sey had quit rather than negotiate an exit package, which would have contained a nondisclosure agreement. It “would not contain a prohibition on the executive speaking out about matters of public interest such as school closures or on engaging in any legally protected speech,” Kelly McGinnis, the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Levi’s, said in a statement.
Ms. McGinnis said that Levi’s supported Ms. Sey’s advocacy on schools, but that she “went far beyond calling for schools to reopen, and frequently used her platform to criticize public health guidelines and denounce elected officials and government scientists.”
She added that Ms. Sey “did this at a time in 2020 and 2021 when hospitalizations and deaths from Covid were spiking, when the company had its own employees hospitalized, and in some cases dying, and companies like Levi’s were using guidance from public health officials to implement policies to keep our employees and consumers safe.”
The company’s social media policy says that employees are free to discuss their views but that it expects employees to protect the company’s “reputation and image.”
Ms. Sey said she did not think that companies like Levi’s needed to endorse specific viewpoints from employees, but they should “stand up for an employee’s right to speech on what they care about.”
Sarah Sobieraj, a professor of sociology at Tufts University, said Ms. Sey’s situation, including her frustration with how colleagues interpreted her personal views, was an example of an increasingly common phenomenon in the digital age known as “context collapse.”
“You used to be able to segment who you are — you could go to church and behave like you did in church and go to work and behave like you did at work, then out with friends and behave that way,” she said. Now, “whatever it is we’re saying or posting, we’re posting in front of all the people in our lives.”
“That blurring is part of the discomfort for Levi’s, and it’s part of the issue that Jen Sey has confronted,” she added.
Ms. Sey, a former national champion gymnast, was the chief marketing officer at Levi’s before being promoted to brand president in October 2020. She was regularly offered up to journalists for interviews, along with Chip Bergh, the company’s chief executive. A mother of four — two of her children are college age while the other two are 5 and 7 — Ms. Sey was well liked internally and was an executive sponsor of the company’s resource group for Black employees.
When the pandemic started, Ms. Sey was living in San Francisco, where Levi’s has its headquarters. She grew worried about how young children like hers might be harmed by public school closures. That was when she turned to Twitter, where in a time of isolation she found other like-minded parents.
“I was used to being in the office and seeing hundreds of people, and while it was work-focused, we’d chitchat in the hallways, ask about people’s kids and what’s going on in their lives,” Ms. Sey, 53, said. “So this connection with other parents was meaningful for me. It could feel in San Francisco that nobody shared this view.”
She regularly posted about school closures, an especially contentious issue in the city, and was involved with rallies about reopening them. She said she had taken care to represent herself as a mother and a private citizen, leaving Levi’s, which is publicly traded, out of her public profiles.
“I know it was easy to find,” she said of her role with Levi’s, “but I was in fact speaking for myself.”
Ms. Sey, whose commentary came before vaccines were introduced and when teachers’ unions opposed returns, said that she had been “encouraged to tone it down” by a board member and other leaders at the company, but that she had never been told to stop posting or offered any corporate social media guidelines.
Last spring, Ms. Sey was asked to appear on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News to talk about her decision to move to Denver so that her children could experience in-person schooling. While she was not identified as a Levi’s executive, the appearance caused an outcry at the company. Around that time, Ms. Sey also did a YouTube interview with Naomi Wolf, who has been barred from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation.
Levi’s, like many companies at the height of the pandemic, held staff meetings every few weeks where employees could ask questions anonymously. At a March 31 meeting, there were questions about Ms. Sey’s appearance on Ms. Ingraham’s show.
In a message shared by Levi’s with The New York Times, one employee wrote: “I would not have had a problem with her appearing on Fox News but that is not what Ingraham Angle is. It is Fox opinion and she is an especially divisive and bigoted personality who regularly attacks the very causes that Chip and the company champion.”
Ms. Sey said she had been hesitant about going on the show, but having failed to get the attention of outlets like CNN, she appeared because she “felt confident that I could get my message across and not be backed into anything I didn’t want to say or agreeing with anything that was perhaps Covid denialism.”
“Just because I don’t agree with everything she says doesn’t mean I can’t have a conversation with her,” Ms. Sey added, pointing to the show’s high viewership.
While Ms. Sey stuck to her message and she said Mr. Bergh had internally defended her right to speak on the topic as a mother, the company asked Ms. Sey to hold a separate meeting with employees.
“When you give an interview to someone who’s cast doubt on vaccines, you really do lend some sort of legitimacy to that person and those views,” said Kara S. Alaimo, a professor of public relations at Hofstra University, referring to Ms. Ingraham. “I can understand why people would have been upset about it, and if I was advising her, I don’t think these platforms were the right ones for sharing her views.”
Ms. Sey said she had deleted some posts after receiving pushback on topics that might affect Levi’s business, including one that was viewed internally as shaming plus-size customers for poor Covid health outcomes. She was also asked by Levi’s to refrain from tweeting about topics like pharmaceutical companies and the California governor recall.
Ms. Sey said she unfairly faced 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 training and Covid vaccines are loyalty oaths.”
“Show me a married couple that agrees on everything and I’ll show you a unicorn,” said Ms. Sey, who did respond to some of her husband’s posts at times. “Do we want to live in a world where the opinions of family members determine your employment options?”
Ms. Sey said her views on schools made her a target. “The idea of pushing for school openings got conflated with being anti-science and a Covid denier, and I would say neither of those things are true,” she said. “I take issue with this idea that you cannot criticize public health guidelines, because so many of them have proven to be deeply flawed.”
Last October, Ms. Sey met with Mr. Bergh. She said he had asked for approval to conduct a background check on her, a routine step for those being vetted as potential C.E.O.s. She was told that her social media behavior was the one thing holding her candidacy back and that Levi’s wanted to review it.
In January, Mr. Bergh said her Twitter presence was “too problematic for you to hold this role of C.E.O., and there’s not a viable path forward for you at the company,” Ms. Sey said. While Levi’s asked her to stay until it found her replacement, she said, she was not interested and quit.
Ms. Sey has argued that she was subject to “viewpoint discrimination” by Levi’s. She said she had previously posted on social media in support of Senator Warren in the Democratic presidential primaries and about her sadness over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020. The company had “not been opposed to political speech or criticism of government policies or even weighing in on candidates” in those instances, she said.
Indeed, that has complicated the circumstances of Ms. Sey’s departure, according to public relations experts. While companies and corporate leaders have long tried to avoid wading into political debates, the heightened divides of this era have caused Levi’s and some other brands to be more outspoken on public issues, including L.G.B.T.Q. rights and immigration.
“A private employer can impose restrictions on employees’ speech or conduct,” Ms. Sobieraj said. “The key issue here is where that boundary lies and what about when you’re not working.”
Both Ms. Alaimo and Ms. Sobieraj noted that at least some of the criticism that Ms. Sey faced, including from former gymnasts who still follow Ms. Sey’s career, could have appeared outsized to Levi’s because women tend to face more vitriol and harassment online.
Ms. Alaimo said that “companies need to be more transparent about what their policies are.” She added: “Since 2016, we’ve seen companies start to take a lot more stances on political and social issues, and we’ve seen a lot of employees speak out when they disagree with them.”
As for Ms. Sey, she is done with working in the retail industry and corporate America, she said. She felt vindicated last month when three members of San Francisco’s Board of Education were voted out. She remains active on Twitter and is working on a memoir “that’s focused on using your voice and speaking up with integrity and doing it as a woman in corporate America.”
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