The former BET programming executive who was fired while on medical leave for breast cancer has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Viacom cabler, accusing managers of fostering a hostile work environment that included retaliation when she complained to human resources.
Zola Mashariki, the former exec VP and head of original programming, maintains that she was subjected to harassment and discriminatory treatment at the hands of her supervisor, former BET programming president Stephen Hill. BET announced the departures of Hill, a 17-year network veteran, and Mashariki on March 29. Mashariki joined the cabler in May 2015 after 15 years as a creative executive with Fox Searchlight.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court, Mashariki accused BET of “egregiously reckless and inhumane” treatment in her dismissal. She asserts in the complaint that she went on leave Feb. 6 for surgery related to her breast cancer diagnosis. She had been expected to return on Feb. 10 but her leave was extended by her doctors to April 11 after it was discovered that she had another form of breast cancer. Mashariki was based in Los Angeles, while Hill was in New York.
Mashariki’s complaint paints a damning picture of Hill as a boss who routinely imposed unusual scrutiny on her actions, took credit for her work, excluded her from key meetings and even sought to insert himself on screen into BET productions. The complaint details HR’s alleged lack of responsiveness to her complaints and retaliation that saw her performance reviews turn from glowing to unflattering. Mashariki also cites gender discrimination in alleging that she earned a lower salary than similarly situated male executives.
“Viacom, BET, and the mostly male leaders at both companies, foster a culture in which women, including Ms. Mashariki, are systematically discriminated against, harassed, intimidated, attacked, and exploited. Ms. Mashariki, like many other women at the company, was exploited for her around-the-clock work while men reaped the benefits and credit,” the complaint states. “Male executives, specifically Defendant Stephen Hill, BET’s President of Programming, encouraged conflict on Ms. Mashariki’s team and sought to disempower and demote her.”
Viacom denies Mashariki’s allegations and has vowed to contest the suit.
“These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit. We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing and we intend to respond to the specific allegations in the course of legal proceedings,” a Viacom spokesman said in a statement. “At Viacom and BET, we take the health and well-being of our employees very seriously and we are committed to fostering an inclusive, diverse workplace that supports the success of all employees.”
Mashariki maintains that she complained to BET chairman-CEO Debra Lee directly about the treatment under Hill and made another formal complaint through her lawyer in November 2016. The complaint asserts that Hill was a “serial harasser” who was protected by BET’s senior management.
After the news of her termination was released by BET’s press department, Mashariki accused BET executives of “questioning the validity of her illness.”
Despite Lee’s presence as CEO, the complaint asserts that BET’s “misogynistic culture, which marginalizes, demeans, and undervalues women, begins at the top of the corporate structure.”