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Bad Day for General Counsel – The Joke That Went Bad

The general counsel of Safeway Inc., a Fortune 100 company, tried to make like Jay Leno and tell a joke at the supermarket chain’s annual meeting Tuesday. But some folks weren’t amused.

Robert Gordon, GC and chief governance officer, cracked a joke about the two most powerful women in Washington, D.C.—Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. And now he’s being branded a sexist.

Gordon, 59, has been Safeway’s GC since 2000. The company operates 1,675 stores in the U.S. and western Canada and had annual sales of $43.6 billion in 2011.

So much for the facts; now the joke:

You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that’s doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.

The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, “Nice pigs, sir.”

And the president said, “These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

And the Secret Service agent said, “Excellent trade, sir.”

And then came the reaction.

Unbelievably, no one complained that it was a rewrite of an old joke told during Bill Clinton’s presidency (thus the reference to Arkansas and razorback pigs), which used to include only one pig and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

But there were other, more substantive complaints. First, the progressive blog Daily Kos scolded Gordon, saying:

It’s a blatantly sexist, disrespectful joke that a high-level executive at a major Fortune 500 corporation felt perfectly comfortable telling at a meeting that he knew was being recorded and web cast out to the world…It’s this kind of casual sexism that contributes to a corporate culture in which women are still not especially welcome…, when corporate America is still so obviously a boys’ club where women are merely the butt of a joke to warm up a crowd.

The blogger, Kaili Joy Gray, both repeated the joke and offered an audio clip of Gordon telling it. She also started a mass e-mail protest aimed at the company.

We don’t know how that went, but Safeway responded to CorpCounsel.com’s request for comment with a statement from Gordon: “I sincerely apologize if the opening comments I made at the recent annual stockholders meeting offended anyone. As these comments have been interpreted, they are not a reflection of my personal beliefs or that of my employer. I understand how my comments have impacted others and I hope they will accept my apology.”

When Safeway’s hometown newspaper, the Pleasanton Weekly in California, ran a short story about the event on its website Wednesday, it focused on the three-cents per share increase in the company’s quarterly dividend that was announced at the meeting, but didn’t mention the joke or the e-mail protest.

By Thursday, some readers decided to add their response to the joke in the comment section under the Weekly’s story. A reader identified as DawnG mentioned the joke and vowed, “This woman will not set foot in a Safeway again until that man [Gordon] is fired.”

Then she posted a transcript of Gordon’s joke, and commented: “Isn’t that nice? Ladies, you know what to do.” She inserted this info from Safeway’s website: “Business Ethics Hotline at 1-866-239-1376 or e-mail us at business.ethics@safeway.com.”

But another reader, identified as “mittens,” disagreed. “Now that’s hilarious,” mittens wrote. “I don’t care how butch you are. It’s pretty obvious that the old guard democrat women are not known for their looks (count moochelle [cq] amongst that group), so it’s a little difficult to get upset over this joke.”

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Safeway Inc General Counsel Bob Gordon was only trying to be funny.  The trouble is his joke about two of Washington's most powerful women resulted in a backlash that was more punch than punchline. 8

Safeway Inc General Counsel Bob Gordon was only trying to be funny. The trouble is his joke about two of Washington’s most powerful women resulted in a backlash that was more punch than punchline.