Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Joe Rogan is no stranger to controversy, and in recent weeks, a new controversy has emerged. By now, you’re likely familiar with the saga: The podcaster has been facing criticism for spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine, as well as using racial slurs on air. In response, several influential artists have pulled their content off of Spotify. In addition, the acclaimed researcher Brené Brown temporarily halted her podcast on the platform. As an artist and business owner, the controversy has brought some questions to light, questions that I think every business leader should ask themselves.
Before I dive into these questions, I want to clearly state that I find Rogan’s words and actions reprehensible and I’m in no way interested in defending him. Rather, I’m interested in analyzing what other business leaders can learn from both Spotify’s reaction and Rogan’s responses — good or bad.
1. How do we treat people who have genuinely apologized for doing something wrong?
People are complicated. For every good thing someone does, sometimes they do things that aren’t good. That applies to me — I struggled with alcoholism for years and, as a result of my addiction, definitely did and said things I’m not proud of. In my 25 years of sobriety from alcohol, I’ve strived to make amends where appropriate. That doesn’t mean that every apology I made was accepted. The reality is that apologies don’t erase the past. But I was able to be honest with people about how I wronged them and own up to my poor actions.
In Rogan’s case, he called his use of the N-word “the most regretful and shameful thing” that he’s “ever had to talk about publicly” and said the clips in a compilation video of him using the racial slur had been “taken out of context.” However, I think what he said about his use of the racial slur fell short; I don’t view it as an actual, genuine apology. It doesn’t matter what context he used that racial slur in each time; he never, ever should have used it to begin with.
Rogan also said he needs to do more research before featuring controversial scientists on his podcast, and told Spotify he’s sorry they’re “taking so much heat” as a result of the situation. He also removed some episodes of his podcast from Spotify. But is that enough?
I don’t think that Rogan genuinely apologized. But as a business owner, you’ve probably faced scenarios where people have messed up and did genuinely apologize. There will even be times when you mess up and need to genuinely apologize. How should you treat a person in this scenario? How would you want someone to treat you?
It’s important to remember, no one owes anyone else acceptance or understanding after receiving an apology, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that as people, we all hope that the other person would listen to our apology and acknowledge it, even if they don’t accept it. And hopefully, we’d be given an opportunity to change our behavior for the better moving forward.
When thinking about how to treat people who have apologized for doing something wrong, some questions to consider include:
- Did the person genuinely apologize?
- Has the person communicated how they will improve in the future?
- Are you in a space where you want to accept the apology, or just acknowledge it?
2. When do we afford people an opportunity to change?
Let’s say you interview a stellar job candidate who has all the knowledge and skills you want for a particular role at your organization. But during the background check, you learn that the candidate was jailed for theft 10 years ago.
Should you remove that candidate from hiring consideration, even though they’ve changed for the better since then? For me, personally, the answer is “no.” I would rather evaluate that candidate’s character based on who they are now versus who they were then. I wouldn’t want to toss someone who can bring great value to my business over a mistake they made a decade ago.
Some things we should ask ourselves — and, when appropriate, the other person — in these situations include:
- Has the person expressed remorse for what they did in the past?
- Has the person apologized to the hurt parties?
- How has the person demonstrated that they’ve changed from their past self?
3. Where do we draw the line?
There are times when having conversations is warranted. Before we end professional relationships, we should ask ourselves if we have an opportunity to educate someone on where they went wrong. However, that determination depends on the situation at hand. We also need to know where to draw the line.
As business leaders, sometimes we do need to end a professional relationship because a conversation just won’t work. Abuse of any kind, for example, shouldn’t be tolerated. And of course, there are times when having a conversation with someone and working with them to inspire positive change is just too much emotional labor.
When deciding where the lines are, here are some questions to consider:
- Did the person’s words or actions harm others, and if so, to what extent?
- Will having a conversation with this person and working alongside them to inspire positive change be too emotionally taxing for you?
- If you’re willing to converse with that person and give them another chance, how will you evaluate their words and actions moving forward?
4. How do we use our platforms as business leaders?
I challenge myself and other business leaders to think about how we use our professional platforms. It’s a question Spotify should be reflecting on right now — how do they want to use the platform they’ve created?
I don’t believe that cutting off professional relationships is the only tool in our toolbox. What if, by you intervening and giving that person feedback, that person can learn something and change their behavior, and even educate others in the future?
Before we cut ties with someone in our professional lives, here are some questions we should think about:
- What should your role be, if any, in helping this person redirect?
- If you decide to help this person redirect themselves, how will you measure their growth to see if they’ve changed for the better?
- What will you do if this person continues exhibiting troubling or harmful behavior?
As business leaders, we should absolutely fight oppression, which includes holding ourselves and those around us accountable. If we go about life as stewards of each other, opting for more challenging heart-to-hearts instead of immediately severing all ties, we might be surprised at how much the world can progress.