Ellen DeGeneres is getting ready to return to work amid allegations of misconduct at her daytime talk show. Variety reports that senior creatives and producers are back on set this week as The Ellen DeGeneres Show winds down its summer hiatus with around 140 personnel gradually returning in stages.
WarnerMedia is conducting an internal investigation after multiple former and current employees detailed an alleged troubling culture filled with sexual harassment, racism, intimidation and fear. Although DeGeneres apologized in a letter to staff last week — “My name is on the show ... and I take responsibility for that” — the comedian distanced herself from having any knowledge of workplace misconduct. In many of the reports, the executive producers and senior Ellen creatives were called out for fostering a toxic culture. However, legal experts say DeGeneres might have some culpability depending on how the investigation unfolds. So what happens to the Emmy-winning show and its star host after the investigation is complete?
Yahoo Entertainment spoke with two lawyers and a risk management expert about where DeGeneres went wrong and what other companies can learn from the controversy.
Employment attorney Angela Reddock-Wright explained that while DeGeneres may have been “shielded” from alleged abuses by senior staff, she’s ultimately in charge of her employees.
“Ultimately, the buck stops with Ellen. Although she was shielded from the workplace toxicity, as the head of the show, the law expects that she knew or should have known of what was happening around her, albeit behind her back,” Reddock-Wright says. “She had a duty to surround herself with leaders and managers that would implement and uphold the policies of the workplace and to create a zero-tolerance environment free of any form of discrimination or harassment.”
Reddock-Wright, who is also a mediator and investigator in Los Angeles, says in many states — like California, where the show is taped — people seen as “enablers” can be named in sexual misconduct lawsuits.
“The law holds managers and supervisors, and in some instances co-workers, [accountable] for failing to report and intervene in sexual misconduct cases,” she says. “The standard is whether they either knew directly what was going on, or, based on the surrounding facts and circumstances, whether they should have known. It’s called ‘managerial/supervisor’ and ‘co-worker’ liability.”
Shortly after BuzzFeed’s initial report, in which 10 former and one current employee detailed alleged abuses on set, it was announced in July that an internal investigation had been launched. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the investigation is nearly complete and will lead to one of the show’s three executive producers, Ed Glavin, getting axed.
In a second BuzzFeed report, Glavin was also accused of “being handsy with women,” as 36 former employees in total “independently corroborated incidents of harassment, sexual misconduct and assault from top producers.” Reddock-Wright says employees certainly have legal options, which will likely be explored after the investigation is concluded.
“The goal of the investigation should be to get to the heart of the allegations and to issue findings which help Ellen and Warner Bros. to know what next steps to take. The investigation should help them determine if anyone should be terminated or [face] some other form of disciplinary action,” she says. “After completion of the investigation, the two companies have a duty to follow up with the victims to let them know the outcome of the investigation.”
Reddock-Wright continues, “Due to privacy issues, employers generally will not disclose the details of the investigation. However, they generally will let the employees making the claims, and in this instance most likely the public also, know whether the allegations were supported or not supported and whether they are taking some form of disciplinary action.”
Victims are likely already consulting with legal counsel, Reddock-Wright adds.
“Employees can decide whether to pursue a formal civil lawsuit for racial discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment or some other form of workplace misconduct,” she explains. “Of course, prior to filing a formal lawsuit, I am sure many of the victims, along with their legal counsel, will seek to mediate and settle the claims pre-litigation.”
However, Reddock-Wright — who was named to the Best Lawyers in America 2020 list in the field of labor and employment law — notes that she’s “surprised” the investigation is being handled internally.
“These are very serious claims which both Ellen and Warner Bros. should take seriously,” she says. “Generally, with claims of a highly sensitive and public nature, to build confidence in the investigation and the transparency of the process, companies will outsource the investigation to a trained attorney or other investigator, who is truly independent, impartial and unbiased. This person or organization generally does not have any prior relationship or association with the company, and if so, that relationship has generally been in a neutral capacity where there is no attorney-client or other potentially compromising relationship.”
What is not surprising to Reddock-Wright is that it has taken years, in some instances, for people to come forward with their allegations. “It is not uncommon for employees who claim to have been victims of workplace misconduct, especially discrimination or harassment, to be fearful in coming forward with their claims,” she explains.
Despite many companies having policies against harassment, discrimination or workplace misconduct, it’s easier said than done for employees to feel comfortable reporting mistreatment.
“Some companies foster a culture that discourages individuals from coming forward based on their belief that employees should be happy to have a job or to work there, especially in the entertainment industry,” Reddock-Wright says. “Also, when employee claims involve individuals at a high executive or managerial level, some companies seek to protect those individuals, and thus create an environment where employees do not feel comfortable coming forward.”
The entertainment industry seems ripe for misconduct, which attorney Belva Anakwenze says is because it’s “an exclusive club built on nepotism and greed.” Anakwenze is the principal of Abacus Financial Business Management, which provides strategic and financial counsel to actors, writers, producers and others working in Hollywood. Anakwenze tells Yahoo she believes “this exclusivity has allowed predatory behavior to flourish and become part of the industry culture.”
“It is unfortunate that those in positions of power have found it hard to vocalize and fight for change. It is often only the very brave that stand up to risk being exiled from the industry,” Anakwenze continues, calling out DeGeneres’s non-apology apology.
“Ellen’s apology fails to acknowledge awareness of the production culture of the show. Company culture starts at the top, so though there may not be direct implications, there is no immunity here,” she notes. “Any good leader would have or could have seen signs and learned about impropriety along the way.”
The controversy should serve as a wake-up call to others in the industry. Given DeGeneres’s popularity, it’s clear that misconduct allegations would capture headlines, but it’s not like a toxic on-set culture at The Ellen DeGeneres Show is an isolated incident. Tom Miller, the CEO of ClearForce, a firm that specializes in the discovery of misconduct and high-risk behavior in the workplace, called this “an extremely common story.”
“We’ve seen time and again these patterns of workplace behavior that never get investigated and never get stopped,” he tells Yahoo. “We only pay attention when it spills into the media or involves someone famous, and now The Ellen DeGeneres Show has to come to terms with their toxic workplace culture on a national stage.”
Miller, who has over 25 years of risk management experience, explains that systems need to be put in place in order to prevent this from happening again. He also advises that there needs to be a clear disciplinary standard at The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“It starts with culture. Are we an organization that accepts this kind of behavior — or is no one above the law? And are we an organization that hopes bad things don’t happen, or are we willing to lead and make sure we have the policies and procedures and systems to ensure a culture that will not tolerate toxic, inappropriate or criminal behavior?” he says. “Organizations must be proactive and have clear, designated processes for reporting, tracking and handling these types of negative workplace behaviors. The team in charge of investigating those reports must apply consistent standards, no matter which person is accused or how important they may seem to the organization’s success. There needs to be a uniform standard that states, ‘If you commit X, then Y happens,’ regardless of title or status in order to truly drive culture change and lessen the frequency of workplace misconduct.”
Miller notes that these “same gaps that foster harassment and bullying are the same gaps that lead to racial discrimination and other forms of disparate impact to employees.”
“Organizations must have a standardized procedure for dealing with workplace misconduct as it arises, and should keep a record of everything. They must set, evaluate and adjust policies using empirical data and experience,” he concludes. “By knowing who reported what, when it was reported, and how it was dealt with, employees will know that their complaints will be taken seriously and leaders will be able to both set and maintain a uniform standard when dealing with workplace misconduct.”
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