Forbes’ 2022 list of career crashes focuses on the people whose downfall sheds light on the times in which we live.
When historians look back on this era in human history, they might be intrigued by how much we put up with: lying politicians, hate-mongering celebrities, bullying billionaires and outright crooks. Some will see 2022 as a watershed moment in which the public’s patience ran out.
This was, after all, the year when a conspiracy theorist was held accountable for dispensing cruel lies about a mass shooting of children. A man who made billions off an inspired vision to travel to space and reduce carbon emissions on earth was stymied by erratic decision-making and hubris on social media. A woman who lied about her technology and modeled herself on AppleAAPL founder Steve Jobs was convicted of fraud and sentenced to jail. A man who convinced some of the world’s savviest investors to bet on his crypto exchange was charged with essentially creating a house of cards.
Such examples are outliers, to be sure, but they also speak to the perils of people preaching easy money or pat answers in a world that grows ever more complex. For Forbes’ 2022 list of career crashes, we focused on the people whose career downfalls shed light on the times in which we live, noting that the severity of their flame-outs varies widely. Check out last year’s list here.
As with all career crashes, there’s a human being at the center of every tale. Some may never regain trust and credibility; others might reinvent themselves or come back stronger. Other than a historic example in the U.K., we chose to leave politicians off this list as rising–and falling–comes with the job. We think it’s also too soon to pass judgment on tech founders like Meta PlatformsFB CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who’s investing billions in developing the metaverse despite falling revenue and a chorus of critics. We did not call out every athlete, celebrity, journalist or public figure sacked for bad behavior.
Here are our choices for this year’s most notable career crashes. Feel free to share your own picks in the comments.
Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and former CEO, FTX
As with Enron and Lehman Brothers, the collapse of the FTX crypto exchange may come to define the end of an era. Right now, we’re still unraveling what happened and the wider consequences. Bankman-Fried is the alleged villain–a crypto wunderkind who was worth $26.5 billion about a year ago and says he’s down to around $100,000 in cash as he faces multiple charges of fraud. Along with exposing the control and cult of secrecy SBF created, the collapse of FTX shone a light on the venture capitalists, pension funds and asset managers who plowed billions into a company that had no CFO, no board of directors and no transparency around its business model. Whether SBF’s actions were criminal will be determined in court, but his career crash has prompted lawmakers and investors to reassess the risks of digital assets.
Bob Chapek, former CEO, Walt Disney Company
To be fair, it would be hard for anyone to replace the iconic Bob Iger, never mind take over the Disney CEO job mere weeks before the pandemic shuttered theme parks, movie theaters and cruises. But Chapek made things worse with decisions that did little to burnish Disney’s brand. On Florida’s “don’t say say gay” bill, he angered employees by initially staying silent and then angered Governor Ron DeSantis by vowing to help repeal it. Then came a high-profile lawsuit from actress Scarlet Johannsson over Black Widow payments, in which her salary was made public. Losses in the company’s direct-to-consumer business more than doubled, driving recent earnings misses. In November, the Disney board suddenly ousted him in favor of a hero who never felt that far away: Iger. Still, investors have yet to be convinced this fairy tale will have a happy ending.
Amber Heard, actress
There’s still much debate about what really went on between Heard and ex-husband Johnny Depp. What we do know is that, when Depp sued the actress for maliciously defaming him as a domestic abuser in a 2018 newspaper article, the jury and internet court of opinion overwhelmingly sided with him in June–leaving Heard with a $8.35 million penalty to pay. On December 19, she wrote in an Instagram post that she had settled the case for $1 million, “having lost faith in the American legal system.” While Depp may have lost some deals because of the op-ed, he’s recovered nicely since the verdict: announcing an album with Jeff Beck, starring as Louis XV in the film Jeanne Du Barry, appearing in Rihanna’s fashion show, renewing his contract to be the face of Sauvage perfume and directing an upcoming Modigliani biopic with co-producer Al Pacino. Heard’s prospects are less clear. Aquaman fans are still waiting to see if her scenes will be deleted in the upcoming sequel and her movie In the Fire, now in post-production, was filmed prior to the verdict.
Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO, Theranos
Early in 2022, a jury convicted Holmes on four counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, capping the years-long saga of her blood-testing startup, which epitomized the dangers of Silicon Valley’s “fake it till you make it” mantra and heralded the hazards of this country’s obsession with founder lore. The Stanford University dropout’s company once reached a $9 billion valuation before being exposed by the Wall Street Journal. Known for her oddly baritone voice, her copy-Steve Jobs aesthetic and fooling high-profile board members such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Holmes was finally sentenced in November to 11 years in federal prison. As the New York Times wrote after her conviction in January, “the verdict signaled the end of an era. In Silicon Valley, where the line between talk and achievement is often vague, there is finally a limit to faking it.” Or—taking just one glance at other names on this list—is there really?
Alex Jones, radio show host and founder, InfoWars
Although Jones cites Larry King and Johnny Carson as inspirations in becoming a broadcaster, his brand was forged in the flames of a botched FBI raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993 that left 76 members dead. Where most saw tragedy, Jones saw a government conspiracy and the specter of martial law. He went on build a career in promoting ridiculous claims like 9/11 being an inside job and a state-sponsored chemical campaign to make people gay. But 2022 was the year in which the alt-right radio host and conspiracy theorist paid the price for repeatedly telling his audience that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a fake event staged by actors. For that, he was ordered to pay almost $1.5 billion in damages–with more potentially to come. Jones has filed for bankruptcy, claiming negligible assets while others estimate his net worth to be as high as $270 million. What is clear is that he will no longer get rich off promoting vicious lies. Let’s hope the judgment gives pause to those who’ve mimicked his success.
Trevor Milton, founder and former CEO, Nikola
Nikola, the company that aimed to be the Tesla of the truck industry, was founded by Milton, a college dropout who became wealthy following Nikola’s public offering in 2020, briefly hitting a valuation that exceeded auto stalwarts like Ford. Milton resigned in 2020 following an activist investor’s report and was indicted last year, then convicted in October, on one count of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Prosecutors contended he was a “con man” who charmed investors with false claims that the company was further along in producing “green” hydrogen and that contracts with customers were just reservations that were cancelable. An attorney for Milton, who faces sentencing in January, has vowed to “keep fighting” and said prosecutors distorted Milton’s statements.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO, Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX
Musk wanted to get out of buying Twitter. After his own poll found most users don’t want him to run it, Musk said on Dec. 20 that he will step down as CEO once a new leader is found. Good thing. Since the $44 billion deal closed on October 28, Musk’s tenure has been a case study in poor leadership. He has botched layoffs, mocked users, flip-flopped on policies and positioned himself as a defender of freedom while freezing some journalist accounts and threatening to ban accounts or posts that promote rival sites. As the gaffes piled up, Twitter revenue has gone down, along with Musk’s net worth and Tesla’s stock price as investors grew increasingly concerned about his ability to run the electric vehicle and clean energy company, along with the other companies he leads. However Musk ultimately responds to the Twitter poll he vowed to abide by, which concluded he should quit, the reputational hit of his madcap stint at the helm could have lasting consequences.
Will Smith, actor, musician, producer
It was “the slap” heard ‘round the world—or at least across Hollywood and the entertainment industry. After he walked onto the Academy Award show’s stage in March and slapped the host and comedian Chris Rock—who had made a joke about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith—Smith apologized and surrendered his membership in the Academy. Now, the incident, which happened the same night he won the Oscar for Best Actor, could cloud the potential for his latest film, “Emancipation,” a drama about the enslaved man, “Whipped Peter,” whose scarred back was photographed by a Union Army camp and became a rallying cry for abolitionists. “I completely understand that, if someone is not ready,” Smith has said about audiences going to watch the film. If the recently released movie—the sort of serious film designed to be an awards-season contender—does get an Oscar nod, Smith won’t be in attendance. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences banned Smith from attending the annual gala event, as well as other Academy events, for 10 years.
Daniel Snyder, owner, Washington Commanders
Snyder and the franchise he owns have been engulfed in controversies for years, with allegations of workplace sexual harassment, a $10 million fine from the NFL and a move to put his wife in charge of day-to-day team operations. But 2022 brought further turmoil for Snyder, who said last month the couple had enlisted a major investment bank to “consider potential transactions,” not specifying whether that meant a full or minority sale of the team. In February, a former cheerleader and marketing manager accused Snyder of sexual harassment in testimony to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, part of other new claims presented to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which had opened an investigation into the team’s workplace culture in 2021. (Snyder called the new claims “outright lies.”) In response to the new allegations, the NFL hired former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White to produce a report; that investigation remains ongoing. Meanwhile, the House committee released its scathing report in December, claiming Snyder had “obstructed” the inquiry. The team or Snyder also face several civil lawsuits, investigations or fines from local officials in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, as well as questions from some team owners about whether he should be removed.
Mark Tritton, former CEO, Bed Bath & Beyond
There are no doubt many reasons why the home goods retailer’s sales and stock price dropped during Tritton’s tenure. When he joined in November 2019, the company was coming off ten quarters of declining same-store sales. The former merchandising superstar from TargetTGT launched a gaggle of private-label brands, edging out many of the household names that consumers associated with Bed, Bath & Beyond. Tritton admitted supply-chain issues had cost the company $100 million during last year’s critical holiday season. It didn’t help that Ryan Cohen, the billionaire investor who sent GameStopGME into a tizzy, announced a 9.8% stake in March, which turned BBB into a meme stock and put a target on Tritton’s back. In the end, Tritton may have simply learned the age-old leadership truth that what works in one realm doesn’t always work in another. Just ask former Apple retail chief Ron Johhson, whose tenure at the helm of J.C. Penney was similarly rocky as he tried to turn discount shopping into a premium experience.
Liz Truss, former U.K. Prime Minister
Truss may be the only politician—U.K. or otherwise—who has lost to a head of lettuce. Days after The Economist made a joke questioning Truss’s grip on power October 11, a British newspaper set up a livestream of a framed photo of the former foreign minister next to a head of lettuce, questioning whether her embattled tenure would outlast the produce. It didn’t. Truss lasted just 44 days, the shortest in Britain’s history, after her low-tax experiment in reviving the British economy imploded, spooking markets, sending the value of the pound plummeting and forcing the Bank of England to step in with a bond-buying program. Reversing course on tax cuts for the very rich and ousting her finance minister couldn’t save her premiership. Stripped of authority and parliamentary support, chaos ensued, and she resigned October 20. While perhaps the most ignominious, Truss’s downfall was emblematic of the run of recent British political leaders whose careers have crashed. Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, resigned this summer after a string of scandals, and former health minister Matt Hancock was ousted after photos emerged of him kissing a ministry aide during a strict lockdown period.
Kanye West (“Ye”), artist and entrepreneur
2022 was the year Ye, the artist and entrepreneur formerly known as Kanye West, blew up his reputation, net worth and businesses in a stunning display of hate and instability. It began in October when he wore a White Lives Matter T-shirt to his Yeezy fashion show and then said Black Lives Matter was “a scam.” He also accused LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault of killing designer Virgil Abloh, who died of cancer, and insulted everyone from the singer Lizzo to Pete Davidson, who dated his ex-wife Kim Kardashian. But West’s antisemitic diatribes proved to be the final straw, from expressing “love” for Hitler to threatening to go “death con 3 on Jewish people” (presumably meaning to write defcon). After taunting that Adidas would never drop him, the German manufacturer did just that, costing West his Yeezy brand and billionaire status. Now, West finds himself increasingly shunned and isolated. We hope he finds something else in 2023: help.