From employee scandals to legal controversies, some companies have faced serious issues after their CEOs put their entire future in jeopardy with their questionable actions. Even powerhouse companies like Nike, Victoria's Secret, Groupon, Etsy and Uber weren't immune from damaged reputations caused by controversial CEOs.
Intense media backlash, fallouts with shareholders, lies, arrests and plenty of questionable actions — these CEOs nearly cost their companies everything. Are you ready to meet the controversial entrepreneurs who were fired from their own businesses? Let’s take a look!
John Schnatter - Papa Johns
When we talk about a CEO hit with the most media backlash, the one and only John Schnatter of Papa John’s Pizza comes to mind. Schnatter came under fire because of his comments related to the NFL and national anthem protests. He effectively said poor NFL leadership affected Papa John’s shareholders.
Harvey Weinstein - The Weinstein Company
One of the most controversial Hollywood personas in 2019, Harvey Weinstein is a former film producer who came under fire when advocates of the #metoo campaign accused him of sexually assaulting more than 80 women during his time as an influential Hollywood figure. Due to the intense and immediate backlash by the Hollywood movie industry and on social media, his own company fired him.
Rob Kalin - Etsy
Rob Kalin is one of those founders that quit his own company not just once, but twice — first in 2008 and again three years later in 2011. Although Etsy’s global reputation remains solid, rumor has it that Kalin wasn’t up to the challenge of scaling the company’s growth. According to critics, Etsy wasn’t managed professionally under Kalin’s leadership.
Travis Kalanick - Uber
Travis Kalanick is perhaps one of the most notable names in the corporate world. Being the founder of Uber was never an easy job, and Kalanick came under fire after the company faced a major public relations crisis in 2017. Uber was accused of toxic in-house environments, sexual harassment and an unethical culture.
Jonah Peretti - BuzzFeed
BuzzFeed’s reputation tends to be questioned and criticized due to the diversity of content on the platform. When Jonah Peretti, the company’s CEO, had to let more than 200 employees go without warning, the controversial actions quickly became public knowledge.
Roger Ailes - Fox News
2017 was a huge year for controversies in the world of big business and CEOs, and many of those controversies ended up changing companies forever. Fox News was no stranger to controversy and scandal, but the network giant took a huge reputation hit in 2017.
Lee Jae-yong - Samsung
Samsung faced its biggest controversy in 2016, thanks to issues with exploding batteries that hurt both people and the company’s reputation. Just a year later, the company came under fire for its questionable leadership. Samsung is family-run, with Lee Jae-yong once at the forefront.
Aubrey McClendon - Chesapeake Energy
Leadership comes in many shapes and forms, and some CEOs are known to be slightly more aggressive and reckless than others. In 2018, Chesapeake Energy’s CEO, Aubrey McClendon, made the news when he was questioned about the legitimacy of borrowing money from some of his investment wells.
Andrew Mason - Groupon
Andrew Mason has been embroiled in quite a few controversies that directly hurt Groupon’s reputation with its investors as well as with consumers. The CEO struggled to move on from the company’s fun start-up life and came under fire plenty of times for his behavior, including one incident where he drank beer during one of the investor meetings.
Martin Shkreli - Turing Pharmaceuticals
One of the biggest pharma scandals was perpetrated by CEO Martin Shkreli, often dubbed one of the most hated men in America. Shkreli received global criticism in 2015 after raising the price of a common drug used to treat parasitic diseases.
Bongani Nqwababa and Stephen Cornell - Sasol
Some companies have joint CEOs in order to complement each other’s business and leadership skills. Of course, that approach doesn’t always work out. Bongani Nqwababa and Stephen Cornell both agreed to resign after initiating a project that cost the company more than $12 billion and dramatically lowered Sasol’s share price by 44%.
Sanjay Kumar - Computer Associates International
The infamous 2004 Computer Associates International fraud scandal put the company’s reputation at risk. The multi-billion-dollar fraud involved the participation of many employees, from top-level management all the way down, but the primary person responsible was the CEO, Sanjay Kumar.
John Fellows Akers - IBM
IBM’s reputation among employees (as well as non-employees) tends to be below average. In the late ‘80s, the company’s CEO, John Fellows Akers, made some significant changes to speed up the process of delivering their products to the market.
Adam Neumann - WeWork
WeWork was without a doubt one of the most successful coworking and co-living startups — for a while. However, in 2019, the company’s downfall started when its CEO, Adam Neumann, began to lose the confidence of the company’s investors due to his inability to run the public corporation efficiently.
Kevin Plank - Under Armour
Under Armour has faced many challenges over the past decade, as the company has struggled to keep up with other sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas. It lost $200 million due to restructuring and layoffs, and many employees came forward with negative allegations about its CEO, Kevin Plank.
Mark Parker - Nike
2018 and 2019 were hard years for Nike’s PR team, as the company’s CEO, Mark Parker, was accused not only of a controversial doping scandal, but also sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. An investigation revealed emails of Parker communicating with coach Alberto Salazar about using performance enhancing drugs that wouldn't be discovered by doping tests.
Jan Singer - Victoria’s Secret
Victoria’s Secret has reportedly struggled with sales and profits over the past couple of years. In 2018, the company’s CEO, Jan Singer, resigned when a Vogue interview with Victoria Secret’s chief marketing officer highlighted that the company’s controversial strategy was to market its products only to certain types of women.
John McAfee - McAfee
McAfee’s former CEO, John McAfee, has led a life that could have been taken straight out of an intense crime movie. After relocating to Belize, McAfee was questioned by authorities as a person of interest in the murder of an American expatriate.
Elon Musk - Tesla
Although Tesla is becoming more and more popular, Elon Musk is no stranger to outrageous controversies. He might not compare to some of the other CEOs on our list for bad management, but it has been reported that Musk is one of the toughest bosses out there.
Bernardo Hees - Kraft Heinz
Kraft Heinz faced a big shakeup in 2019 after its CEO stepped down in the wake of a huge value decline in the company’s stock price. Originally separate companies, Kraft and Heinz merged when they were acquired by 3G Capital.
Marissa Mayer - Yahoo
Marissa Mayer has been named one of the worst CEOs in American history. Impressive, right? She took over Yahoo in 2012 in hopes of restoring the search engine’s greatness so it could compete with giants like Google. Her strategy involved acquiring 53 internet companies. However, apart from Tumblr, none of them made any significant noise in the online world.
Kenneth Lay - Enron
Kenneth Lay was a huge figure in Enron’s early days, as it made its way to the top as an energy-trading giant. Unfortunately, bad business practices led to the company’s downfall. After investigators uncovered accounting fraud, the business’ stock price plummeted from $90 to $1, and its shareholders lost $11 billion.
Bernie Ebbers - MCI WorldCom
In 2002, the success of MCI WorldCom’s business ventures came to a crushing end. Bernie Ebbers, the company’s CEO, was involved in the largest accounting fraud in history, making a staggering $11 billion in misstatements. Ebbers was also accused of taking millions of dollars from the company for personal loans.
Mark Hurd - Hewlett-Packard
Mark Hurd may not be on the same level as some of the CEOs on our list, but that doesn’t mean he’s not guilty of some wrongdoing. He was fired as CEO of Hewlett-Packard after he was caught submitting inaccurate expense reports. To make matters worse, he tried to hide his relationship with a female contractor who was involved with the business.
James McDermott - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods
Keefe, Bruyette & Woods is an investment bank that didn’t get by without a scandal in the late ‘90s. The company’s CEO, James McDermott, was involved in a relationship with an adult film actress, Marilyn Star (also frequently styled as Marylin Star). He revealed confidential company information about a future merger, and Star passed the information on to another lover.
Martha Stewart - Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
Ah, Martha Stewart — what do you think about when you hear that name? Starting her catering company back in 1976, Stewart soon became a force to be reckoned with in the culinary world. She launched her own company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and that’s when things started to go downhill.
Abby Lee Miller - Abby Lee Dance Company
Abby Lee Miller is an infamous dance teacher and the owner of Abby Lee Dance Company. Climbing to fame due to the TV show Dance Moms, Miller showed the world her character as one of the toughest dance teachers around.
John Browne - BP
The John Browne scandal is slightly different than the others on our list. Browne, the CEO of BP, lied under oath when he was asked about his relationship with his boyfriend. Specifically, he lied about how they first met, saying they were both jogging in London when, in fact, they met through a male escort agency.
David Edmondson - RadioShack
David Edmondson spent more than 10 years at RadioShack before revealing a shocking truth — he had lied on his CV. The CEO of the company claimed he had received a theology and psychology degree, but he actually only finished two semesters at a school where a psychology degree was never even offered.
Harry Stonecipher - Boeing
Boeing is no stranger to controversies from inside and outside the company. In 2003, Harry Stonecipher came out of retirement and became the company’s CEO, but he didn’t seem to learn anything from the former CEOs’ mistakes.