If you consume social media, be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or the app of the moment TikTok, you have certainly come across “the Karen meme.” By and large, “the Karen meme” is an image depicting a middle-aged Caucasian woman, almost always sporting a spiky, short blonde haircut. “Karen” argues with and is condescending to service industry workers, and demands to speak to the manager on account of small, meaningless inconveniences, such as an iced skinny vanilla latte with one too many ice cubes. While memes have become popular on the internet, “the Karen meme” has the potential to create legal claims for employers depending on how it is used at work.
As “the Karen meme” went viral, some have argued that “the Karen meme” itself is sexist, racist, or ageist, any combination of the three, or all three. Others assert that it is not. Who is right depends largely on whom you ask, and how you look at the issue.
From an academic and satirical point of view, much like “OK, Boomer” does not necessarily mean “OK, old person,” “Karen” does not necessarily mean “middle-aged Caucasian woman.” Rather, “Karen” depicts a particular temperament instead of a particular demographic. As the meme is used, any person, regardless of generation, race, and gender, can be “Karen” so long as they are perceived to be entitled and disrespectful. Stated otherwise, like the “Boomer” of “OK, Boomer” fame, the “Karen” of the newest meme craze is a personality, not a person.
But from a practical standpoint, because “Karen” is almost always portrayed as a middle-aged Caucasian woman, the fact that the meme is meant to refer to a personality, not a person, is largely irrelevant. That is a factor in why its use can create legal claims for employers.
Unlike “Karen,” “OK, Boomer” did not use a particular person – such as an elderly individual of a certain race and gender – to embody its titular character. Indeed, the meme often used a movie or even an animated cartoon character sarcastically or stoically responding “OK, Boomer” to a statement made by a nameless, faceless “Boomer” with whom the recipient of the comment disagreed.
By contrast, “the Karen meme” is always portrayed as an individual defined by three characteristics – her age, her race, and her gender. All three characteristics are protected under state and federal law under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (for age over 40).
Moreover, “the Karen meme” could pose significant issues pertaining to retaliation. Specifically, a hallmark of the titular “Karen” character is her tendency to ask to “speak to the manager” to air her frivolous complaints. Consequently, if “the Karen meme” finds its way into the workplace, an employee who voiced a complaint to superiors or Human Resources could perceive the meme as attacking his or her credibility and dismissing the seriousness of their concern. If that employee is, for example, subsequently not promoted, the use of “the Karen meme” in the office would certainly play a part in his or her subsequent retaliation action. From a practical standpoint then, if “the Karen meme” is shared between employees during working hours, it may well expose employers to lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment in state or federal court. To minimize exposure, employers should take steps to ensure that its employees are familiar with any applicable social media policy, as well as applicable laws aimed at preventing discrimination and harassment based on protected characteristics. To that end, clear communication of the employer’s policies, and training provided to employees, is key.