Why do companies debase staff by throwing them to the wolves?

Waitrose food magazine editor driven from job by salivating online mob over email

Outgoing editor of Waitrose’s food magazine William Sitwell, whose response to a freelance journalist’s pitch made vegans bay for blood when it was made public. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Outgoing editor of Waitrose’s food magazine William Sitwell, whose response to a freelance journalist’s pitch made vegans bay for blood when it was made public. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

 

Some people who are treated roughly are simple to defend. Others less so, such as William Sitwell, a plummy British food writer, harshly driven from his job as editor of grocery group Waitrose’s food magazine this week by a salivating online mob.

But even friendship with Brexit’s comic villain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, shouldn’t disqualify a man from the right to fair treatment.

In the face of the baying crowd, the lack of support that Sitwell received from Waitrose, which holds itself aloft as a brand supposedly built on higher principles, also raises difficult questions for all companies who throw their people to the wolves.

Must corporate crisis management always take precedence over the needs of an individual, especially one in a vulnerable moment and in the crosshairs of a hit mob?

Sitwell, as anyone who has watched him on MasterChef will attest, is imbued with the pomposity required of a proper toff. He bounces about in that irreverent, raffish manner that the English establishment love so dearly about themselves. He also has an acid tongue at times, too, but that’s hardly the biggest crime in the world.

Sitwell’s assassins were whipped into a righteous fury by a private email he sent to a freelance journalist, Selene Nelson, who had politely pitched him a series of vegan food articles for Waitrose’s magazine’s 700,000 readers.

Freelance journalist Selene Nelson, who pitched William Sitwell a series of vegan food articles for Waitrose’s food magazine.
Freelance journalist Selene Nelson, who pitched William Sitwell a series of vegan food articles for Waitrose’s food magazine.

He fired back a clearly facetious, if unprofessional, reply that he’d rather read a series of articles about killing vegans “one by one”. Old-school detractors of vegans still view them as the Isis of the culinary world, and Sitwell’s outdated view was obviously needling that stereotype.

The joke wouldn’t be to be all tastes, although I admit I cracked a smile at the reference to “ways to trap vegans . . . [and] interrogate them”. It drew up an image of vegans as little squirrels, munching nuts , but the vegan freelance, gloriously living up to stereotype, did not find it amusing.

What did Nelson expect? Hasn’t she watched him on MasterChef or read his articles? If she didn’t know the eccentricities of the editor to whom she was pitching, then that was her mistake.

Clearly smarting, she sent Sitwell a professional reply. Then she took her hurt feelings and his email to Buzzfeed, which published the lot. Veganism’s online hounds from hell went in search of a human sacrifice. After intense pressure – not abated by a public apology from Sitwell – he agreed to “resign”, which met with Waitrose’s approval.

From a corporate perspective, the supermarket chain was in a pickle. It had just launched a new range for vegans, and here was the public face of its magazine caught out joking about their torture.

But anybody who is being honest with themselves knows full well he didn’t mean it literally. It was just a lame old joke, made in private between two people. It doesn’t matter that it was his work email. The content of the exchange wasn’t accessible to the public, until Nelson chose to make it so.

An apology from Sitwell should have sufficed, but the vegans – ironically, given their dietary habits – wanted blood.

In this difficult moment, what should a corporate brand do? Sitwell’s transgression was, by any reasonable yardstick, not a resigning or sacking offence. Vegans are not an ethnic minority or a sexual orientation.

It is not a “hate crime” to mock them, especially in private. Sacrificing Sitwell could cost him his career and reputation, with all the obvious implications of that for him, his loved ones and his sense of self-worth and dignity.

This is a moral quandary, and not just a corporate one. Do you back your people when they are being unjustly targeted, or do you recoil in fear to save damage to your brand?

Waitrose, as part of the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership, elevates itself on to a higher moral plane – it is “how we behave”, according to its bumph.

But when the strain came on its back, it folded like a cheap suit. It announced Sitwell was leaving the magazine’s publisher with immediate effect, and made clear it approved. It then hoisted itself on its own petard – Waitrose thanked Sitwell for his 20 years of working with the company. Two decades. Yet it allowed his immolation over a stupid joke about trapping vegans? What do you get for 30 years’ service? Public crucifixion?

Sometimes social media’s judge/jury/executioners eye legitimate targets. Racism, bigotry, homphobia – associations with these things can poison a company or brand. If an employee becomes associated with it, that is a problem that must be addressed.

Waitrose may have calculated that it was right from a corporate perspective to welcome his resignation. But was it not morally wrong to allow him be chewed up by vacuous outrage culture? Where does Waitrose’s lack of public support for one of its people, this time in trouble, fit in with “how we behave”?

What message does it send to the supermarket chain’s employees about an individual’s value to the collective? And to whom will Waitrose’s executive suite turn to for support when, as could easily happen one day, the digital villagers come for them?

One of the most unsettling trends on social media, especially Twitter, is the growing tendency for people to “tag” somebody else’s employer into an online discussion if that person has said something of which the tagger disapproves. You don’t have to be a prominent celebrity like Sitwell for someone to try to get you sacked.

Each time someone is unjustly sacrificed by an employer to outrage culture, it gives the online narcissists more authority. Many executives, even those who play act at being corporate “citizens”, will say this is not their problem. But it could be some day.

FOOTNOTES

Ryanair baggage policy change adds to customer burden

Ryanair this week introduced its new baggage policy, which effectively eliminates the free 10kg wheelie bag for its customers. Instead, unless they travel lighter than the Littlest Hobo, they will have to fork out to pay for cabin baggage, beginning at €8 for the smallest bag and going upwards from there.

Ryanair has attempted to spin this as a revenue-neutral change, introduced purely to eliminate departure-gate delays caused by last-minute bag-tagging. But, surprise surprise, aviation analysts are suggesting it will make the airline a handsome profit.

Goodbody stockbrokers analyst Mark Simpson was quoted on Fora.ie this week suggesting that Ryanair could yield as much as €58 million from the change to its baggage policy over the next six months.

Ryanair is a money-making machine. If it is changing its baggage policy to squeeze some extra revenue from passengers, why not be up front about it? People understand it is a business. Yet Ryanair waffles instead that it is all about improving turnaround times and eliminating delays for passengers.

But passengers, who previously would have been allowed bring a bag on board and take it off with them, now must wait for 20 to 30 minutes at their destination for that bag to emerge on to a carousel, and pay for the privilege. So much for Ryanair’s customers’ turnaround times.

Clarence hotel operator enters profit

One Dublin hotel company that appears to have the capacity to pay the new 13.5 per cent VAT rate is Brushfield, which operates Paddy McKillen’s Clarence hotel on Dublin’s quays.

Accounts just filed show Brushfield made a profit of about €1 million, emerging for the first time into a positive position of accumulated profits. It also repaid about €240,000 of a €270,000 loan to its shareholders: Brushfield is one-third owned by McKillen and two-thirds owned by a company linked to U2’s Bono and Edge.

The operating company also paid rent of about €770,000 to the McKillen-led consortium that owns the property.

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