Estée Lauder Suspends Executive John Demsey after Backlash Over Instagram Post

Caption courtesy by the Wall Street Journal

The executive oversees a portfolio of the cosmetics company’s brands, including MAC and Clinique.

By guest author Sharon Terlep from the wall Street Journal. Ray A. Smith contributed to this article.

Estée Lauder Cos. has suspended a top executive without pay following backlash over a post on his personal Instagram account that contained a racial slur and jokes about Covid-19.

The New York-based cosmetics company suspended John Demsey, who serves as executive group president and oversees a portfolio of brands, including MAC and Clinique.

A meme posted Monday to Mr. Demsey’s Instagram account pictured a spoof book cover of the children’s TV show “Sesame Street.” The post, which contained the N-word with some letters replaced with asterisks, no longer appears on Mr. Demsey’s account.

“Effective immediately, John Demsey is being placed on unpaid leave due to content posted on his Instagram handle,” Chief Executive Fabrizio Freda and Chairman William Lauder said in an internal memo to company leaders Tuesday. An excerpt of the memo was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

“The content posted does not represent the values of The Estée Lauder Companies,” the memo said. “As a company deeply committed to inclusive actions and behavior, and in line with our company policies, our employees and our leadership are accountable for upholding these values.”

Mr. Demsey couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Mr. Demsey, a 30-year veteran of Estee Lauder, has overseen MAC for decades as the brand grew from edgy upstart to one of the biggest names in beauty. Estee Lauder reported his total compensation as more than USD 9.6 million in the year ended June 30.

He was instrumental in tapping a diverse range of women as MAC ambassadors or collaborators, especially Black music stars, including Rihanna, Mary J. Blige and recently Saweetie. Over his tenure, Mr. Demsey, 65 years old, has coordinated numerous marketing campaigns and built relationships with fashion entrepreneurs and celebrities in New York and beyond.

As one of the industry’s highest-profile executives, Mr. Demsey has more than 73000 followers on Instagram and nearly 51000 posts that include fashion images and numerous memes poking fun at heiresses, celebrity women who date younger men and poorly applied eyeliner, to jokes about being unmotivated and depressed.

“I’m kind of flabbergasted that somebody in the personal care/beauty business would even risk, on a pretty hefty social media account, joking about some of these things,” said Mark Lipton, professor emeritus of management at the New School and Parsons School of Design, referencing Mr. Demsey’s posts.

Mr. Lipton, who also advises senior executives, said the overall tone of the account, before the post that got Mr. Demsey suspended, should have concerned company leaders. “It’s got to put more than a ding into the work they’re trying to do there,” he said.