Leadership Lessons to be Gleaned from Ellen DeGeneres’ Toxic Workplace Scandal

Ellen DeGeneres began her daytime talk show’s 18th season with an apology after a summer of allegations against her that claimed her show promoted a toxic work environment rife with racism, sexual misconduct and other mistreatment.

In August 2020, three senior producers — executive producers Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman — were ousted from the Warner Bros.-distributed syndicated program after stories alleging mistreatment broke at Buzzfeed News and Variety.

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Initial allegations against the trio ranged from microaggressions toward Black women to firings after employees took off of work for personal and medical reasons. In July 2020, BuzzFeed news reported additional allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against the executive producers. In April 2020, Variety reported that DeGeneres’s production crew were told to expect reduced compensation during initial coronavirus shutdowns while leadership hired nonunion crews to produce a quarantined version of at DeGeneres’s show filmed from her home. The crew was restored to full pay before the Variety report was published.

“I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” DeGeneres said on the Sept. 21 season premiere. “I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

However, to many current and former employees, the comedian’s apology fell short. With her usual lighthearted jokes sprinkled in, DeGeneres’s mea culpa came across as tactical and dismissive, former employees told BuzzFeed News.

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“When you’re talking about people who have accused her leadership of the seriousness of sexual misconduct, I don’t think it’s appropriate to have jokes in the monologue,” a former employee said.

Still, others were pleased the star was finally addressing the environment on her show after years of ignoring it.

DeGeneres also joked about being known as the “be kind” lady. In 2010, when Tyler Clementi died by suicide after he was bullied for being gay, DeGeneres began ending each of her shows by saying, “Be kind to one another.” DeGeneres, who is also gay, said that she began saying the phrase as a “reminder” because she thought the world needed more kindness. “I think we need it more than ever right now,” DeGeneres emphasized.

However, being known as the “be kind” lady came back to bite DeGeneres when the allegations came out. “There’s nothing wrong with being the ‘be kind’ lady if you’re actually true to your word,” a former employee told BuzzFeed news. In March 2020, allegations of DeGeneres being mean to employees and guests surfaced after comedian Kevin Porter offered to donate $2 to the Los Angeles Food Bank for every story of DeGeneres being unkind replied to him on Twitter.

“I am a work in progress,” DeGeneres said, admitting that she gets angry, impatient and frustrated.

DeGeneres’s scandal offers a lesson on leadership accountability and the importance of leading with values and ensuring that those values carry throughout all levels of an organization. These values begin with how leaders conduct themselves both publicly and privately.

Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson remarked on the issue, saying that while leaders need to be responsible for the treatment of their employees, the public must also hold all leaders to the same standards.

“We have to hold leaders accountable for what happens to their employees, she said. “At the same time, we must be mindful of the bias that exists in how we expect people to show up and how we are sometimes harder on women, Black, Latinx and LGBT+ leaders than we are on white men.”