Although strides have been made to put sexual harassment at work firmly on employers’ agendas, it must fatigue the advocates for workplace equality that it remains largely just that – an agenda item. The Ellen Degeneres Show scandal is the latest toxic workplace to showcase racism, bullying and sexual harassment. Three words which one would probably not associate with the publicly adored, queen of daytime television, Ellen DeGeneres. Yet, according to recent allegations from current and former employees The Ellen DeGeneres Show is an extremely toxic workplace.
Historic allegations have often been ignored as the word of disgruntled and jealous celebrity has-beens or wannabes. It is not so easy, however, to disregard first-hand account of employees who have spoken out about the rampant and systemic abuse they endured. Staff – male and female – report to the media that they were groped, touched and accosted for sex acts, dismissed for taking medical or bereavement leave, ordered not to speak or look at Ellen, castigated for taking excessive toilet breaks, and black staff were labelled the ‘PC police’ by management who refused to learn their names. Staff who stayed silent were rewarded with iPhones, whilst those who raised concerns were quietly and swiftly replaced..
A striking feature is that all of the employees remained anonymous. This is entirely understandable if staff see the risk of dismissal or other poor treatment as too high a price to pay. The mistreatment was compounded by a lack of clear channels to raise concerns which could have put an early stop to the abuse. Staff reported that there were no assurances of confidentiality, no independent persons to approach and no guarantees against retaliation.
An open question is: did Ellen know? Some reports suggest Ellen was shielded by the executive producers: her involvement with daily management was minimal and any interaction with staff was carefully choreographed. Others doubt Ellen’s ignorance and accuse her of willful blindness. Whatever Ellen’s knowledge, one employee stated that she “really needs to take more responsibility”. There lies the crux of the issue: the culture of a workplace is set from the top so the responsibility must sit there too. Fame and celebrity may be high currency in Hollywood but it does not absolve celebrity-employers of their duties to their staff.
In her apology, Ellen accepted responsibility but delegated some blame to her management in light of the show’s rapid growth. Ellen’s apology stated “my name is on the show and everything we do and I take responsibility for that” – an important reminder that management cannot outsource culpability to middle-management. It is the duty of senior staff to set the right culture, train managers regularly and keep abreast of the welfare of their staff.
WarnerMedia announced it will conduct a full internal investigation and executive producers have now provided employees with a HR representative to whom they can raise further concerns. Although for the reputation of the show, this may be too little, too late.
Bullying and sexual harassment allegations are ubiquitous. It is painful how easily comparisons to the Harvey Weinstein scandal can be made, and stories of toxic workplaces at Fox and McDonalds follow closely behind. Closer to home, 500 staff at Lloyd’s of London reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment in 2019, with 20% reporting the organisation turning a blind eye. Lloyds of London’s response included the launch of a campaign to encourage speaking up. Last month Karon Monaghan QC found the GMB Union to be ‘institutionally sexist’. Bullying, sexual harassment and excluding women from senior roles was endemic in the GMB. The GMB’s response says that it is committed to “transformational change”. And a report in Parliament in 2019 found “Some staff of Members of Parliament are subject to an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, at work” and MPs have recently (September 2020) recognised the need to address this issue with recent sexual harassment and bullying training for MPs.
These reports are alarming, especially so in light of research by Hanson and others that found that workplace sexual harassment may be a risk factor for both suicide and suicide attempts. Clearly more needs to be done , and training is a start but it is not the end. Whistleblowers will only speak up about unacceptable behaviour in the workplace if they are confident of a meaningful outcome. It is our collective responsibility to create a space where this happens.