Employer lessons from the Will Smith slap heard around the country

April 2, 2022

Most of us have now seen the infamous slap that actor Will Smith gave host Chris Rock during the Oscars. Smith went on stage and slapped Rock after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife’s hair.

Rock claims not to have known that Smith’s wife was bald due to a medical condition, alopecia.

Smith followed the slap with a foul-mouthed declaration to Rock.

Here are six employer lessons from the Oscars incident.

1. Violence is never justified and should never be tolerated.

At the time Smith walked on stage and slapped the host of the show, Rock was working and doing his job. This event constituted workplace violence.

There has been much commentary on whether Rock’s joke went too far, thus justifying Smith’s actions. Rock’s joke about a medical condition would not be tolerated in the workplace, but as a hired comedian, only the Oscar planners can determine the parameters of what is off-limits. In the workplace, Rock would have been disciplined for disparaging or joking about another person’s medical condition.

But Rock’s insensitive joke, even if made while working at an organization, does not justify Smith’s response.

Employers must never tolerate any violence, or threats of violence, and never excuse or justify it. Any act of violence, or threat of violence, even if someone believes the person is kidding, should result in dismissal.

2. Implement a robust policy against workplace violence.

Every employer needs a policy against violence, threats of violence, or violent behaviors (such as yelling, slamming doors, throwing objects, and other angry behaviors) and an associated zero-tolerance stipulation.

3. Remove anyone accused of violence immediately.

Instead of immediately removing Smith following the incident, Oscar planners seemed to have no response and subsequently gave him an award. It doesn’t matter if Smith was the most important person in attendance, if he was about to be given a big award or if they thought he was somehow justified — he, like any employee accused of violence, should have been removed immediately, pending an investigation.

Upon removal from the workplace, an accused employee should be instructed not to return to any work location, or contact anyone in the organization other than the investigator, pending the investigation.

4. Rock chose not to press charges, but that shouldn’t change the employer’s response.

Too often organizations rely on criminal proceedings to determine whether and how to address violent workplace behavior. The criminal process is separate from the employer’s response. It doesn’t matter if Rock decided to press charges (which he reportedly declined).

After removing an employee accused of engaging in workplace violence, employers should immediately conduct an investigation to determine if the employee violated company policy. Everyone should get fairness in the course of the investigation.

If the investigation concludes the employee violated company policy against workplace violence, the organization should terminate the employee consistent with its zero-tolerance policy provision.

5. Chivalry is no excuse for violence.

One of the reasons implicit bias infiltrates our workplace causing women to be viewed as needy and weak is because society perpetuates a concept of men honoring and defending women. In the workplace, women are equals and deserve no preferential or disfavorable treatment by men or women.

Too often, men feel the need to take care of women, and this chivalrous attitude, while well-meaning at times, actually prevents women from rising to the ranks of leadership. We can be allies for each other by promoting and encouraging each other’s success, but men should not be charged with taking care of women and other marginalized groups in a way that makes the men seem superior and the marginalized group inferior.

6. Anyone can commit violence.

Employers wrongly assume that only men can commit violence. Much has been discussed in the media about the fact that a Black man slapped another Black man, as though somehow Smith’s actions are a repudiation of all Black men. Smith owns his actions and his behavior cannot and should not be in any way attributed to any single-gender or race. Women and men of all races, ages, and other demographics can commit violence.

I recently worked with a client who terminated a long-term white female who came to work jokingly saying she was going to shoot up the place. She had to go. No employer can take the risk of keeping someone who threatens or engages in violence.