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Jennifer Sey could have been the next Levi's CEO. She left over COVID-19 views

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The resignation of a top executive at Levi Strauss and Co. this week has prompted questions about how much corporations should be able to control or not the public speech of their employees. Where is the line between opinions that are personal and those that are professional? NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: At the very start of the pandemic, Jennifer Sey took a hard-line position. Schools should stay open.

JENNIFER SEY: A view that was considered quite controversial at the time - I became outspoken about school closures, you know, as soon as the schools closed in March 2020.

SELYUKH: At the time, Sey was the chief marketing officer at Levi. She had spent over 20 years with the company. In the fall of 2020, she got promoted to Levi's brand president on a path to potentially become the next CEO. Instead, she has now resigned.

SEY: Ultimately, just about a month ago, the CEO said to me, there's just not a path for you here. You know, it's all too much.

SELYUKH: Sey build her personal brand around outspokenness. She's a former elite gymnast who has written and produced a documentary about abuses in the sport. As the pandemic spread, Sey began tweeting a lot against shutdowns of schools and playgrounds, worrying about the impact of remote learning on students, eventually disagreeing with mask mandates for children altogether. She made media appearances as a mother of four and a resident of San Francisco, where Levi's is based. But is it possible for a top executive to wall off their personal campaign from their company's image? Americus Reed is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

AMERICUS REED: You can't really be C-suite person these days and, like, have a completely separate kind of personal brand, really. It's such a high-powered position, most people will not separate it out.

SELYUKH: Sey acknowledges this, but she says she's a mom and a child advocate before business executive. Last spring, determined to send her kids to in-person school, Sey moved from San Francisco to Denver. And she did interviews with author Naomi Wolf and then Fox News host Laura Ingraham, both of whom have cast doubt on COVID vaccines and measures. Sey did not discuss vaccines and says she's vaccinated, but her choice of platform escalated controversy.

SEY: At that point is when employees really started to complain privately quite a bit to the head of HR and the CEO. And there was pushback on social media that was quite public, tagging my employer, saying boycott Levi's, asking that I be fired.

SELYUKH: Still, she says many employees privately wrote to her in support, and so she never stopped tweeting, taking issues with COVID restrictions for children. Sey also stayed involved in a campaign to recall members of the San Francisco School Board, largely over extended school closures. This week, actually, three school board members were voted out in a landslide.

Charles Elson, corporate governance and ethics expert at the University of Delaware, says a key part of this saga is Levi's own history of political speech. The denim company is a storied American brand that has advocated for gay rights, for immigrants, certain gun measures and, most recently, voting rights.

CHARLES ELSON: On the one hand, they took strong positions on certain social issues with which many in the company might disagree, yet they punished her for effectively doing the same thing. You've got to be consistent.

SELYUKH: In a statement to NPR, Levi's argues Sey's case is not one of stifling dissent. The company says it supported Sey's personal advocacy before, but here, she went beyond school reopenings to, quote, "criticize public health guidelines and denounce elected officials and government scientists." Levi says her words and actions confused and alarmed employees, effectively undermining company health and safety policies. Sey says, for a while, she felt her bosses had her back - until they didn't.

SEY: There had been a, you know, assessment of all of my public statements on social media but also through op-eds and news appearances. And there was a sense that I had lost the ability to lead within the organization because so many employees were so upset by the things I had said.

SELYUKH: When Sey quit, she says she walked away from a million-dollar exit package, which would typically come with a nondisclosure agreement. Levi's says no such offer was formally made. Regardless, Sey says she's now got the ultimate freedom to speak freely. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.