Tensions over racial injustice appear to be creating a rift at Red Bull.
The Austria-based energy drink company fired its top two North American executives amid internal turmoil over the company’s public response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Business Insider first reported.
In an internal memo sent July 13, Red Bull North America confirmed the departures of CEO Stefan Kozak and CMO and President Amy Taylor, whose permanent replacements will be identified “at a later stage.”
The company said in a statement that Red Bull North America executives Alexandre Ruberti, Executive Vice President of Sales, and Marc Rosenmayr, Executive Vice President of Operations Finance, and IT, would temporarily lead the Santa Monica-based North America unit.
Red Bull also reportedly fired its global head of music, entertainment and culture marketing Florian Klaass, and eliminated or scaled back entertainment and culture teams in Canada, the UK and Austria.
The firings came just weeks after employees leaked an internal letter addressed to Kozak and Taylor and signed by over 300 employees in which Red Bull leadership was criticized for what the employees called its “public silence” on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As we scroll through social media feeds filled with brands making posts in solidarity, donating to worthy causes, and committing to looking inward to tackle racism, we wonder when we will be able to feel proud that our company is taking those same steps,” the June 1 letter said.
The following day, on June 2, Red Bull posted a #BlackoutTuesday image to its Instagram profile, which boasts 13.2 million followers. The brand’s next Instagram post came four weeks later, on June 29, to announce its fundraising support for the 1 Planet One People initiative, which was co-founded by sports commentator and surfer Selema Masekela and aims to support racial and social equality.
“For the first time ever in my life, no one can hide from this question of inequality and race in America,” Masekela is quoted in the post. “If you have a platform it’s time to start using it for a higher purpose.”
Red Bull has the largest market share of the global energy drink market and ranked No. 71 on The Forbes Most Valuable Brands 2019 list with a brand value of approximately $9.9 billion.
Days after Business Insider published the June 1 letter, Red Bull employees leaked an offensive slide depicting a racially insensitive image that was shown at an internal company meeting in February.
At a meeting of the company’s U.S. culture marketing team in Detroit, the slideshow contained a modified version of a graphic titled “the world according to Americans,” which featured a satirical world map meant to typify the ignorant American consumer.
In the slide, the Middle East is labeled with “evil-doers” and “bombs go here,” while India is marked “call centers.” Africa is described as “zoo animals come from here.” The slide featured several other racial stereotypes.
The February event was organized by Klaass and his Austria-based team. Two marketing employees told Business Insider that the U.S. marketing team reviewed the slide in question ahead of the meeting and warned the Austrian team not to use it, but the advice went unheeded.
One Red Bull employee reportedly complained about the slide to human resources, but no action was taken, according to Business Insider.
“We reject racism in every form, we always have, and we always will,” the company’s board said in an emailed statement to Forbes. “Red Bull has always put people and their dreams and accomplishments at its core and values the contribution of each and every person — no matter who they are. We want everyone who feels this way to be welcome in Red Bull.”
When asked whether Klaass was fired over the offensive slide, Red Bull said in a statement that the company “has decided to strengthen the focus of its culture marketing programs on where it makes most impact. Culture programs that remain include Red Bull BC One, Red Bull Dance Your Style and Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos.”
“The company will be discontinuing many of its other culture marketing activities,” the statement continued. “Consequently, Florian Klaass, Head of Global Culture Marketing will no longer be with the company.”
Current and former employees told Business Insider that the objectionable slide illustrated a cultural imbalance between Red Bull’s Austrian leadership, who reportedly viewed Black Lives Matter as a “U.S.-only” issue and did not want to weigh in, and its U.S. employees who believe that standing against racial inequality should be central to the company’s brand.
This is not the first time Red Bull has come under fire for appearing to tolerate racist messaging. The company faced controversy in 2015 when it published a video on its website featuring a person dressed as Barack Obama chasing a banana alongside two men in blackface, which was recorded at its Flugtag event in Russia.
Possible Retaliation Claims
Employees told Business Insider that the North America firings were believed to be retaliation for the leaked employees’ letter. Kozak and Taylor had also reportedly been working on a diversity program at Red Bull but received pushback from leadership.
Another employee told Business Insider that employees were warned that Kozak and Taylor could be fired if additional leaks continued.
To the extent that these employees’ assertions can be verified, Red Bull could possibly be found liable for civil penalties under the antidiscrimination laws as a result of the firings.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits U.S. businesses from retaliating against employees for opposing discriminatory employment practices. Generally, to prevail on a retaliation claim in court, a plaintiff must prove that an individual engaged in a “protected activity” that served as the basis for a materially adverse employment action, such as a termination, a demotion or a reduction in pay.
According to data released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 39,110 retaliation claims were filed with the agency in 2019. Retaliation represented the most frequently filed charge with the agency.
California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act similarly bars employers from retaliating against employees who engage in protected activity to oppose race discrimination in the workplace.
Protected activities can take many forms. They include formal written complaints, verbal complaints to managers, refusing to participate in discriminatory behavior or even nonverbal protest. An employee’s complaint may be considered protected activity even if the underlying behavior cannot be proven to be discriminatory, so long as the complaint was made in good faith.
One could argue that the employees’ letter constitutes a protected activity under the law because it appears to oppose unlawful workplace discrimination. By failing to take a firm stance on the Black Lives Matter movement, the employees argue in their letter, Red Bull has fostered a workplace that is at best indifferent towards the wellbeing of its Black employees: “[t]aking action, openly and loudly, is a signal to employees of the company’s commitment — with accountability, beyond lip service — to upholding their safety at work and their right to exist in the world, free of racism.”
Notably, the employees’ letter also calls on Red Bull to communicate the steps it will take internally to address racial inequality, not just its public stance on Black Lives Matter. If Kozak or Taylor had evidence that they were fired because of the leaked employees’ letter, then they may have viable retaliation claims against the company.
There is also the question of Kozak and Taylor’s purported diversity initiative. If Red Bull decided to fire these executives because they developed a program that aimed to increase Black representation at the company, then such a scenario would almost certainly provide fodder for discrimination and/or retaliation claims.
While it remains to be seen whether Red Bull’s actions were in fact unlawful, the executive departures represent an important shift in the overall employment landscape. In the court of public opinion, no longer is it considered acceptable for businesses to simply act in compliance with the antidiscrimination laws. Rather, companies are encouraged to take a proactive, public stance against racial injustice and to reflect deeply on the ways in which they can work to eliminate barriers to racial equality within their own organizations.