It is no understatement that celebrity chef Paula Dean has seen her world fall apart after it was reported that she had used the “N-word.”
Her use of this racial slur came out when she testified (PDF) in an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee against Ms. Dean, her brother Bubba Hiers, and companies they both own.
The employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Ms. Dean is a lengthy text-book example of how not to run a business when it comes to managing employees.
But for purposes of this post, Ms. Dean’s testimony offers two very important lessons for any individual, manager, or business owner who may be required to testify in any legal proceeding – Tell the truth but only to the question asked and then shut-up.
Telling the Truth – No Exceptions
As to the first point, Ms. Dean was asked in her deposition:
Q. Have you ever used the N word yourself?
A. Yes, of course.
To Ms. Dean’s credit, she answered the question truthfully. And while truth does not condone Ms. Dean’s use of a such a hurtful racial slur, it is worth noting that she told the truth presumably with some appreciation that her admission would have significant negative consequences to her celebrity and business interests.
In contrast, how many times have political “leaders” said one thing, under oath or otherwise, only to later recant their testimony often after having gotten caught lying?
Similarly, but with less headlines, individuals routinely testify as to one thing in lawsuits only to have documents or other evidence prove that testimony is patently false. Worse and even more troubling, such questionable testimony is often offered under circumstances that call into question the integrity of the opposing attorney under whose watch the testimony was originally offered. More often than I would prefer I’ve had an opposing lawyer remind me of Bess Myerson‘s observation that “The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference.”
Be Truthful But Only to the Question Asked
The second take-away from Ms. Dean’s testimony is the importance of saying as little as possible in response to a question while still being truthful.
In this regard, a little background is necessary: As noted above, Ms. Dean was testifying in an employment discrimination lawsuit against her and her brother. Evidence and testimony against Ms. Dean’s brother, Bubba, showed or at least suggested that he frequently used the “N word” to refer to staff, as well as frequently viewed and shared pornography at work.
When questioned about such misconduct, instead of simply answering the questions, Ms. Dean offered a long-winded confessional-like explanation:
Attorney: Well, have you done anything about what you heard him admit to doing?
Ms. Dean: My brother and I have had conversations. My brother is not a bad person. Do humans behave inappropriately? At times, yes. I don’t know one person that has not. My brother is a good man. Have we told jokes? Have we said things that we should not have said, that — yes, we all have. We all have done that, every one of us.
This all may be true, but the answer has nothing to with the question asked and offers so many paths for the opposing lawyer to go down. But Ms. Dean, like most people, wanted to explain. And this is especially likely to happen where the actual answer may not be entirely favorable.
A deposition, however, is not the time to offer an explanation. In fact, it is almost always true that no good can come from offering any extended commentary in response to an adverse lawyer’s question. This is because you must understand the ultimate purpose for why that lawyer is asking you questions at a deposition.
To put it bluntly, if your words were a rope, that lawyer is hoping you give him or her enough rope so that at some point in the lawsuit those words can be twisted around your neck in order to hang you or your company. In other words, you should always expect that if your words can be used against you, they will. So give as few words as you can while still truthfully answering the question actually asked.
The Dean debacle is an all too common snapshot of situations employers and employees often find themselves in when it comes to employment discrimination claim. But when it comes to “game-day” if you can only remember two things, make sure it is to always tell the truth but only to the question asked and then shut-up.
For more information about employment discrimination, contact Jason Shinn who is a Michigan employment attorney. He has represented individuals and Michigan businesses since 2001 in the areas of complying with federal and Michigan employment laws, noncompete agreements and litigation, as well as business lawsuit.