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Hostile Work Environment Definition

The Hostile Work Environment That Brought Down Paula Deen

paula-deen-friedMany people do not realize that Paula Deen’s troubles do not just stem from her admitting that she used the N-word, but that she admitted using the N-word during a hostile work environment lawsuit filed against her.  Even if you are a huge Paula Deen fan, you probably have more in common with the employee than you have in common with Paula Deen.  Do any of these things sound like something you’ve experienced at work?

You suffer through work days under a supervisor who:

  • Makes sexual comments
  • Utters racist remarks
  • Looks up dirty jokes and pictures on his office computer
  • Promotes only people who remind him of himself, and
  • Threatens anyone who questions him

When you or a co-worker finally muster up the courage to say something to your boss’s boss, one of three things happens:

  1. You are told the organization will look into everything, you shouldn’t worry and you shouldn’t talk about it. Then you wait… and nothing happens. Nothing changes, and no one ever gets back to you; or,
  2. Your boss’s boss looks at you like you have two heads, and gets angry at YOU for YOUR attitude — your immediate boss is told about your complaint and starts retaliatory discipline against you; ultimately you are shunned, given less responsibility, worse job duties, and feel like you have no choice but to quit.
  3. The third possibility is a combination of the first two. It starts with scenario #1: You repeatedly complain to human resources or another manager and you are repeatedly told that the company will take care of it. But nothing changes. Sometimes this cycle goes on for years. Feeling worn down and like you have nothing to lose, you finally put your foot down with powers that be. Then #2 occurs: you are made out to be the problem, retaliation starts, and you feel you have not choice but to quit.

Do You Recognize Your Own Work Life in This Celebrity Controversy?

If these patterns sound familiar, then you have a lot in common with the employee who filed suit against Paula Deen and her restaurant company.

The employee who lived through the hostile work environment is a Caucasan restaurant manager named Lisa T. Jackson. Lisa began working for a group of three restaurants as a hostess.

Within six months she had become the first female manager at any of the three restaurants. Over the next five years she worked under the owner/manager of one of the restaurants, the abusive boss described above who is named Earl “Bubba” Hiers.

Bubba’s boss, the famous head of this restaurant group, was Bubba’s own sister. Bubba’s sister had grown famous far beyond her restaurants. She published cookbooks, starred in her own television shows and sold cookware under her own name brand.

The celebrity boss who would not put a stop to her own brother’s harassing and abusive behavior… is Paula Hiers Deen.Earl_Paula

Uncle Bubba’s is one of three restaurants owned by Paula Deen Enterprises. And here’s what you don’t know about the story. The actual lawsuit is not really about Paula Deen using the “N-word” at all.

“My case has never been about racial slurs,” said Lisa Jackson. “It’s about [Deen’s] disrespect and degradation of people that she deems to be inferior.”

Lisa’s Jackson’s case is a story of a woman suffering under an abusive boss for five years, and finally standing up for herself. It’s also a story with some empowering lessons that other employees can apply to their own situations.

How the N-Word Really Occurred

Jackson’s lawsuit states that Paula Deen used the “N-word” when talking to Jackson about the arrangements for Bubba Hiers wedding in February of 2007. Here’s what the lawsuit says happened:

Deen had put Jackson in charge of catering for the wedding. Jackson’s lawsuit claims that Jackson asked what “look” the wedding should have. The lawsuit alleges (and Paula Deen denies) that Deen said:

“Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n_____s to wear long-sleeve white shirts, white jackets and blow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around…. But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.” (Complaint at para. 51).

Paula Deen admits that she remembers this event, but denies that she used the “N-word.” During her deposition Paula gave her version:

“And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited… and it was so impressive. The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black blow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.” (Deen Depo, p. 124-31).

She then continued and said, “Yes, I did say I would love for Bubba to experience a very southern style wedding, and we did that. We did that.” (Deen Depo, p. 124-31). When asked if she said that she wanted her brother to experience a “southern style plantation wedding,” Deen responded, “Well, something like that, yes.”

Jackson’s lawyer then asked, “Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and use word “n—-r”?”

Deen’s responded by saying, “No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.”

So now I ask you, Paula Deen, what do you call unprofessional black men who are doing a poor job? Read Paula’s answer from the last paragraph once more if you don’t see what I mean.DeenWquote

But Jackson’s attorney moved on, trying to get Deen to admit that she wanted Bubba’s wedding to recreate a wedding at slaveholding southern plantation — which Deen pretty much admitted.

The one time Deen did admit to using the N-word was years prior to Bubba’s wedding. Deen said that twenty plus years ago while working as a bank teller, an African American man came into the bank, pointed a gun at her, and demanded money. A traumatized Paula Deen used the N-word to describe to her husband what had happened to her at the bank that day.

Ironically, the bank robber who pointed a gun at Paula Deen, who she referred to by using the N-word, blames himself for all of Deen’s current troubles. His name is Eugene Thomas King.

A judge sentenced King to 25 years after he robbed the bank where a young Paula Deen worked as a teller. He served his time, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. When a news magazine show interviewed him, he said “I really feel for her. She’s being persecuted because of that one little mistake in her judgment. She was acting out of anger.”

But the press and Deen’s sponsors reacted very differently than the man she called a “N—-r”.

A firestorm of news coverage and controversy blasted through her life. Deen’s sponsors started dumping her as if she were a radioactive hot potato. The sponsors who dropped her included the Food Network, her publisher Ballantine Books, Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Novo Nordisk, and JCPenney.

Worse Than The N-Word

So why did all these big companies drop her so quickly? These big companies have attorneys on staff, and I think these companies took the time to read the actual law suit against Deen and her brother.  I believe these companies are afraid of how many more lewd details about Paula Deen’s restaurants could hit the news. So the companies decided to sever ties with her now, before more reports of racism, sexism, and abusive work environments become headlines news and further tarnish their brands.

Like the tip of an iceberg, Paula Deen admitting to using the N-word in reference to a bank robber 25 years ago is the only part of this story that is sticking up through the surface.  This visible part is what the media excitedly pointed at and focused on.

The rest of the story is more vast and more shocking. The rest of the story is still floating silently beneath the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and includes porn, battery, screaming threats, and exploiting celebrity status to silence critics.

Porn, Battery, Screaming Threats, and Celebrity Charm

Lisa Jackson would not prevail in her lawsuit if her only evidence of a hostile work environment was that twenty years ago Paula Deen used the N-word a single time in a conversation with her husband.

But there’s plenty more that Deen said and that Deen allowed.  A brutally hostile work environment permeated Deen’s restaurants — particularly so at Uncle Bubba’s, which is where Jackson worked with Deen’s brother.bubbasRestaurant

The details of how Bubba Hiers treated his staff — of how he treated other human beings — is disgusting. That Paula Deen didn’t put a stop to her brother’s abuse of his employees is outrageous, and it’s sad.

Here’s the Dirt

Here are some of the specific things Lisa Jackson’s lawsuit says took place at Paula Deen’s restaurants:

Lisa Jackson was first hired as a hostess in August of 2005, at Uncle Bubba’s. The General Manager at that time was fired by Paula Deen for allegedly sleeping with his employees at the restaurant. Deen was upset that Hiers had not bothered to address the matter, saying to her brother (when Jackson could overhear) “If you think I have worked this hard to lose everything because of a piece of pussy, you better think again.” (Complaint at para. 17).

Having fired the male General Manager, Deen then promoted Lisa to General Manager of Uncle Bubba’s. Hiers then said to Lisa, “You’re everything I’ve never wanted but everything I need — a woman to clean my business up.” (Complaint at para. 18).

After Lisa implemented a cost saving program and tighter financial controls at Uncle Bubba’s, the corporate accountant Karl Schumacher said Lisa was “almost Jewish.” Bubba Hiers referred to her as “my little Jew girl.” (Complaint at para. 21).

Dustin Walls was the General Manager of one of the other three restaurants, Lady & Sons. Walls sent out an apology across the corporation for threatening to fire all the “monkeys” in his kitchen. His kitchen staff was African American. (Complaint at para. 27).LadySons

Bubba Hiers stated to Lisa on multiple occasions that “if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my sister, if it ever comes down to firing a guy or a girl, you let the girl go because they are a dime a dozen and you can always find a girl to come work for you but it’s hard to find good guys.” (Complaint at para. 30).

After two years Lisa requested a raise. Schumacher said Bubba Hiers would not permit a woman make any more than Lisa was already paid. Schumacher said “Bubba Heirs would have a heart attack if he knew you were being paid this much.” (Complaint at para. 32).

Bubba Hiers would frequently download and view porn at work while in the small office he shared with Lisa. He would view porn sites on the kitchen computer and forget to log out when he left. He also received pornographic material at an email address he shared with Lisa. (Complaint at para. 41).

Bubba Hiers repeatedly asked Lisa to bring pictures of herself when she was young in to work so he could look at them. “You have nice legs” he told her. (Complaint at para. 42).

Hiers would frequently tell Lisa and other staff stories of his frequent trips to strip clubs. (Complaint at para. 43).

After another female employee got dentures, Hiers commented “I bet your husband is going to like that.” (Complaint at para. 45).

Bubba Hiers told the staff that men should have sex with women with flat heads because “you can sit your beer on top of her head while she is giving you a blow job.” (Complaint at para. 46).Bubba_cookbook

Hiers kept black employees in “back of the house” roles, where customers would not see them, preferring whites for “front of the house” roles that interacted with customers. (Complaint at para. 52-55).

Hiers came into the office he shared with Jackson, slammed the door behind him, and stated “I wish I could put all those niggers [in the kitchen] on a boat to Africa.” (Complaint at para. 56-a).

Hiers said to an African American security guard “don’t you wish you could rub all the black off you and be like me?” When the guard said he was just fine the way he was, Bubba added “you just look dirty, I bet you wish you could.” (Complaint at para. 56-c).

When talking to a vendor who traps raccoons, Hiers said, “you also got a bunch of coons in this kitchen you can trap.” (Complaint at para. 56-e).

Hiers and Schumacher both allegedly told jokes on multiple occasions using the “N-word.” (Complaint at para. 56-f, 57).

On July 20, 2010, Jackson brought two African-American kitchen staff to Hiers’ office because they had witnessed a white employee make a sexually harassing comment to a black employee. Hiers became angry that news of the incident could get out, and began screaming at the black employees, demanding to know everything they saw.

When the black employee said, “can I plead the 5th Amendment?” Hiers began violently shaking the employee, saying “f__k your civil rights… you work for me and my sister Paula Deen. You’re not going to get me sued over some little bitch. (Complaint at para. 60).

A white foam cup appeared on Bubba Hiers desk regularly at 10:00 am, which the staff believed was full of whiskey. The staff lived in fear of Bubba Hiers and his screaming angry outbursts. (Complaint at para. 61-63).

Lisa Jackson made “numerous and frequent complaints” of both race harassment, sex harassment, and abusive treatment to the highest levels in the company, including to Paula Deen. Lisa states that “The Conduct was universally known and tolerated within the ownership and management levels of the corporate enterprise, and by corporate counsel and no remedy was offered. (Complaint at para. 64).

Lisa Jackson was so stressed by Bubba Hiers’ abuse and harassment that she pleaded for a transfer anywhere in the company, even if she had to take a cut in pay. After the corporate office turned down Lisa’s request, Lisa made the same plea directly to Paula Deen herself. Deen told Lisa that she could never leave Uncle Bubba’s restaurant.” (Complaint at para. 65-66).

It was near this point in time that the General Manager at one of Deen’s other restaurants, Lady & Sons, made the statement that he wanted to fire all the “monkeys” in the kitchen. As word spread through the organization about the comment, Paula Deen directed the manager to come visit her at her home.

During this meeting she “slapped him on the wrist”, but said that she did not want to do it and regretted doing it. Deen explained that otherwise she feared the NAACP would become involved. Corporate accountant Karl Schumacher said, “We have to show we are doing something.” (Complaint at para. 71).

The leadership of the company tried to placate Lisa Jackson by putting her in charge of drafting a new employee handbook. She worked with the company attorney on this project, hopeful that it would be the map that would set a new course for the company culture. Lisa submitted the draft to Mr. Schumacher in May of 2010. Jackson and Schumacher also discussed the possibility of the company hiring a human resources professional to address Lisa’s complaints. Lisa hoped that things were finally starting to change. (Complaint at para. 72-74).

But time dragged on. The company was silent about the handbook. No one hired a H.R. Manager. In July of 2010 Schumacher told Lisa that he would be in charge of personnel management, and no H.R. Manager would be hired. (Complaint at para. 75).

It was shortly after this that Bubba Hiers violent shook the African American staff member who had witnessed sexual harassment at the restaurant. When Jackson reported this incident, Paula Deen’s solution was not to confront her brother and put a stop to his abusive behavior.

Paulas_HomeInstead, Deen’s solution was to bring the African American employee out to her $3.7 million home and “massage” him — meaning turn on the charm and make him feel special. Deen explained this business strategy, saying that sometimes you have to “just massage them… even if you don’t mean it, it will make them feel good… you’ve got to learn to massage them and make them feel good.” (Complaint at para. 77).

The very next month, in August of 2010, Jackson hosted a dinner at Uncle Bubba’s for the company’s vendors. Bubba Hiers himself arrived late in a drunken stupor. He immediately walked up to Lisa, forcibly grabbed her face and kissed her cheek saying loudly “I love her. She is my boss and she isn’t going anywhere.” The vendors got the impression that Hiers employed Lisa because she was sleeping with him, not because she was good at her job.

That same night, Hiers demanded to be served immediately or he would fire the staff, stating “Do you know who I am?” (Complaint at para. 78-79).

Lisa Jackson became so distressed over her working conditions that she sought the help of her doctor. Her doctor wanted to admit Lisa to the hospital, and refused to simply give her anti-depressants and send her back into her abusive workplace. Jackson’s doctor said that the only way her health would improve was if she quit going in to work.

At that point, on August 19, 2010, Lisa Jackson quit her job as General Manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House.

Strangely, none of the vendors who complimented her work would hire her or even take her phone calls after she quit Uncle Bubba’s.

Lisa could not get hired for an equivalent job anywhere in the Savannah area. Desperate for work, she actually had to go to another city to find a job. The insinuation in her lawsuit is that Hiers and Deen had blackballed Lisa in retaliation for her complaints and for quitting. (Complaint at para. 82-86).

Did the Employer Win?

At the point in the story where Lisa quits her job, is getting bad references, and can’t find work anywhere in Savannah, it looks like the employer has won. That’s probably how it felt to Lisa.

But that was not the end.

Scales-of-Justice-011Lisa utilized her legal rights and shone a bright light on everything that had happened at Uncle Bubba’s. She demonstrates how powerful one single employee can be when she asserts her employment rights — even after five years of keeping her head low and trusting that management would fix things, after five years of putting up with discrimination and abuse.

Now Lisa Jackson’s story is not a story of defeat, but a story of empowerment.

The scandal that ensued has already cost Paula Deen and Bubba Hiers far more than any court judgment could have.

If Deen does not settle the case with Lisa Jackson, you know all the additional detail that will be coming out. Deen’s corporate sponsors do not want to be associated with those details.

If your own situation is similar to what Lisa lived through, now is a good time to learn your rights and take action, because companies have seen first hand what can happen when a single employee stands up and starts shining a light on a hostile work environment.


1)  David can still bring down Goliath.

2)  If you have quit your job, or feel forced to quit, you have not lost. Jackson felt forced to quit, then couldn’t find work anywhere else in town. She had to travel out of town to find another job. That was in the summer of 2010. Three years later, Lisa Jackson’s lawsuit toppled an empire.
3)  The damage to a boss’s reputation can cost more than the lawsuit. This case drives that home. After this lawsuit, any valid allegation of a boss using the N-word or other strong racial epithet will be feared by companies and executives. Nobody wants to be the next Paula Deen.

4)  Your story is not all about you. Lisa Jackson is a white female, but the most explosive part of her lawsuit is about what Paula Deen said to a black male. By standing up for your co-workers and other victims of abuse you help them and you help yourself.

If you want to read some of the pleadings from the lawsuit Lisa Jackson filed against Paula Deen Enterprises, you can access the documents here or here.

What is your story? 

Does anything that happened in Paula Deen’s restaurants remind you of your own work experiences? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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