What a strange year for Americans’ careers. Start with the fact that millions simply quit their jobs in 2021 because of burnout, personal responsibilities or a chance to find better opportunities elsewhere. Many also lost their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19 or because their employers had to scale back during the pandemic. Meanwhile, a number of protesters who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6 discovered that their actions came at a cost to their careers.
Then there are those whose careers suffered for more personal reasons. Firing employees on Zoom and impersonating a customer to impress potential investors were the sparks behind some of this year’s most notable career flame-outs. Others are hanging on, but suffered reputational damage that they’re now trying to repair. Below are 2021’s biggest career crashes, arranged in alphabetical order.
Andrew Cuomo, former governor of New York
He was the perfect pandemic-era leader, earning plaudits as a somber voice of reason and guidance during the Covid-19 pandemic as his counterparts in Washington, D.C. were downplaying the risks. But in August of this year, now former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned after the New York attorney general’s report concluded that Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women. Since then, he has been charged with forcible touching and inappropriate sexual advances, both of which he has denied. In his latest fall from grace, Cuomo has been ordered by the New York State ethics board to turn over millions of dollars in profits from his pandemic memoir.
Chris Cuomo, former anchor, CNN
Early in the pandemic, the sibling banter between CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and older brother Andrew was a boon for ratings. But that closeness came under scrutiny after the New York governor was investigated for allegations of sexual harassment. Cuomo was fired from CNN in December after evidence emerged that he had crossed a journalistic line in trying to help his brother, including offering advice on public statements and contacting journalists to discover potential articles. His termination also followed allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied.
Matt Doran, Australian TV reporter
Matt Doran lost the right to air his coveted interview with Adele after he admitted to the singer that he hadn’t heard her new album. The reason: Doran missed a link that was emailed to him by her record company. That’s the stuff of nightmares for journalists—or anyone whose inbox is flooded with emails. In an apology, Doran said news of his gaffe “sparked a torrent of abuse and mockery from around the world,” adding that “the bulk of this savaging I deserve and I totally own.” Doran apologized to the singer and her Australian fans for missing what was, “by an absurdly long margin, the most important email I’ve ever missed in my life.” Luckily, his boss and Seven West Media CEO James Warburton stood by Doran, saying the miss was “obviously disappointing” but Doran was a pro who would “get on with his job.”
Vishal Garg, CEO, Better.com
For a case study in what not to do when laying off employees, it’s hard to top the now infamous December Zoom call in which Better.com CEO Vishal Garg fired 900 people. It was cold: “If you’re on this call,” he said, “you are part of the unlucky group being laid off.” It was self-indulgent: “The last time I did it, I cried,” he added. “This time I hope to be stronger.” And it ultimately led to Varg, who has apologized and has a history of financial and legal entanglements, taking a leave that was “effective immediately,” according to an internal memo.
Jon Gruden, former coach, Las Vegas Raiders
Former Super Bowl winner Jon Gruden resigned from his job as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in October after media scrutiny of emails where he made homophobic, misogynistic or racist comments. The emails, in which Gruden allegedly exchanged photos of topless women and criticized or made derogatory comments about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and several others, surfaced as part of an investigation into workplace misconduct accusations that did not directly involve him. Gruden is fighting back, suing the league and Goodell for allegedly leaking emails about him. He’s not the only NFL coach who saw his career fumble this year: The Jacksonville Jaguars fired Urban Meyer in December after just 13 games, following a 2-11 record and a string of off-field controversies that included allegations by a former player that Meyer had kicked him in the leg while stretching, a claim Meyer has said was an “inaccurate” characterization.
Armie Hammer, actor
Armie Hammer came into 2021 with a film project opposite Jennifer Lopez and a key role in a TV series about the making of The Godfather. Then came some unverified Instagram messages from an anonymous account in which the A-list actor purportedly claimed to be a cannibal who wanted to drink the recipient’s blood. The social media attention that received sparked more allegations of abuse, rape and bizarre behavior. (In a January statement to People, Hammer referred to the messages as “bull— claims” and “vicious and spurious online attacks;” Vanity Fair notes Hammer has never confirmed the texts. His lawyer has called other allegations “outrageous” and “patently untrue,” saying the interactions were consensual.) Dropped by his agent and publicist, Hammer went into rehab for several months and now faces an uncertain future.
Josh Hoffman, cofounder and former CEO, Zymergen
When “synthetic biology” company Zymergen went public in April, it raised $500 million on top of more than $1 billion in venture funding. Josh Hoffman, then CEO, predicted potential market opportunities of $1.2 trillion for his company, which promised to craft products such as optic film for smartphone screens from engineering microbes. But four months later, the company imploded after announcing it would have no revenue from product sales in 2021 and that expected product revenue in 2022 would be “immaterial” for 2022 as rollout of its optic film was delayed. Hoffman, one of three cofounders, stepped down as part of “a mutual decision between him and Zymergen,” the company stated in a press release. He was replaced by Zymergen’s chairman.
John Matze, former CEO, Parler
The social media platform, one of the services where online extremists discussed the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, terminated John Matze in February, a few weeks after Google, Amazon and Apple removed Parler from their app stores or web-hosting services. He said he was fired, alluding to disagreements on how the site should be managed and suggesting in media interviews that restrictions he proposed on content from users such as QAnon conspiracy theorists were met with “silence.” (The company has disputed the characterization, calling it “inaccurate and misleading.”)
Samir Rao, cofounder and chief operating officer, Ozy Media
To understand the trajectory of Ozy Media and Samir Rao’s career, let’s start in February. That’s when a Goldman Sachs team heard Rao posing as the head of unscripted programming at YouTube, praising Ozy in an attempt to secure a $40 million investment from the bank. The ruse was quickly discovered and attributed to a mental health crisis for Rao when the New York Times came calling several months later. That raised more doubts about a media company that has been accused of exaggerating its numbers in its newsletters and its signature Ozy Fest. While Rao remains on a leave of absence, the company is now reportedly facing federal investigations.
Travis Scott, hip hop superstar
Hip-hop star Travis Scott has been hailed by Forbes as a “brand whisperer” to corporate America. But that changed after the tragedy at his Astroworld music festival in November, in which a crowd surge left 10 concert-goers dead, many more injured and multiple lawsuits pending. While who to blame is unclear, brands have been distancing themselves from the star. Anheuser-Busch recently said it is discontinuing Scott’s Cacti hard seltzer. Last month, Nike postponed its shoe collection with Scott “out of respect for everyone impacted by the tragic events” and production company Mega64 said it had terminated an upcoming project featuring Scott. Meanwhile, amid more than 60,000 signatures on a Change.org petition, Billboard confirmed that Scott will not be part of the Coachella 2022 music festival lineup. Scott has apologized and offered to pay funeral costs for the victims, which some families have rejected.
Alice Sebold, author, Lucky and The Lovely Bones
Alice Sebold’s 1999 memoir Lucky, which chronicles her violent rape at 18 and the aftermath, was on track to become a movie until a producer started to question details around the man convicted of the crime. Although Sebold had reported Anthony Broadwater to police after spotting him on the streets of Syracuse a few months after the crime, she later picked a different man out of a police lineup. Broadwater, who ended up serving 16 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, was exonerated by a New York State Supreme Court judge in November. Now the bestselling author of The Lovely Bones, who apologized to Broadwater in November, has seen her movie deal die and the producer announce that he’s doing a documentary on Broadwater called Unlucky.
Leehom Wang, actor
Breaking up is never easy. But Leehom Wang — or Wang Leehom, as the U.S.-born singer and actor is known to millions of his fans — has faced a public drubbing amid allegations of infidelity from his ex-wife. While Wang has owned up to his mistakes, noting via his Weibo account that he failed to manage his marriage and “didn’t give the public the image an idol should have,” the damage is done. Brands such as Japanese automaker Infiniti, Chinese manufacturer Readboy, and Chow Tai Seng Jewellery in Hong Kong have reportedly ended partnerships with Wang. And Hu Xijin, an influential journalist in China’s state-backed tabloid The Global Times, suggested that Wang’s prospects in China may be limited..