The “Be Kind” Lady
Ellen DeGeneres is most notably known for her role on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which she has hosted since 2003. As a gay public figure, Ellen has used her platform to push for and advance gay rights in America. “[Ellen] and President Obama were the leaders when LGBT Americans were asked to name a well-known figure who’s been important in advancing the rights of LGBT people.” Beyond being a powerful voice for gay rights, she has branded herself as the “Be Kind” lady. She got this title because she ends every show by saying, “Be kind to one another.” She is also known for helping struggling fans and surprising audience members with gifts.
Although Ellen has previously had this reputation, she has recently been facing a lot of backlash. Beginning in March 2020, Ellen DeGeneres, her show, and the network, Warner Bros., have been accused of creating a toxic work environment “full of racism, intimidation, and fear.” Kevin T. Porter was one of the first people to call Ellen out on Twitter, alleging that she is “notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”
Since then, “dozens of current and former employees [alleged] verbal abuse, misogyny, racism, and other inappropriate behavior . . . as well as claims of rampant sexual harassment and misconduct.” Some allegations include: (1) employees being told to never look Ellen in the eyes, (2) she picked someone different to hate every day, (3) she tried to fire someone for having chipped nail polish while serving her food, (4) she fired someone after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals. “[A] former Black employee said she was subjected to multiple ‘microaggressions’ during her tenure, including once at a staff party.” In April, members of Ellen’s crew alleged that they “were told nothing ‘about the status of their working hours, pay, or inquiries about their mental and physical health from producers for over a month,’” in reference to the current pandemic. In July, “36 unnamed former employees [alleged] incidents of ‘harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault from top producers.’” The producers who were allegedly involved in the incidents were Kevin Leman, Ed Glavin, and Jonathan Norman.
Warner Bros. released a statement that read, “Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres take the recent allegations around the show’s workplace culture very seriously.” An internal investigation was launched, and information corroborating some of the allegations was found. As a result of the findings, the accused producers, Leman, Glavin, and Norman, were fired from the network.
Ellen sent a letter to the show’s staff addressing the allegations. The letter started with, “On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness – no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect. Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show.” Ellen received backlash for this letter as people believed that she was blaming her staff for the problems and not taking responsibility for what happened.
After Ellen issued an apology via the letter, she apologized to her staff again via Zoom. She informed her employees of the decision to fire Leman, Glavin, and Norman, and also informed the staffers that “they would be receiving new perks, including paid time off and a generous medical leave policy.”
During the premiere of The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s 18th season on September 21, 2020, Ellen addressed the toxic workplace allegations and stated, in part, “I am so sorry to the people that were affected. I know that I am in a position of privilege and power and with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”
Presumably, Ellen was aware of the backlash she got for her lack of accountability for her staff’s actions and tried to make a clearer statement to state that she is taking responsibility for what happens at her show. Although she did address the allegations, some people are criticizing her for including jokes in the apology. “[A] former employee didn’t think it was ‘appropriate to have jokes’ given ‘the seriousness of sexual misconduct’ accusations.”
Although inappropriate, a toxic work environment is not illegal unless the employees are being targeted under their protected class. The Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (“EEOC”) enforces the laws that protect current and former employees from employment discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history).”
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 federally prohibits sexual harassment. In New York State, “In order for an employer to be liable for the [sexual] harassment, the victim must show that the employer knew or had reason to know about the speech or conduct and did not intervene.” The standard is usually met if a supervisor, “someone who has the power to direct the employee’s daily work activities,” is the harasser. While the allegations against The Ellen Show would be subject to California law, the producers would likely satisfy the definition of a “supervisor.”
Moving forward, hopefully the changes made within Warner Bros. and The Ellen DeGeneres Show will improve the workplace environment and make employers more aware of the need to be involved. It is unclear whether Ellen will be able to move past these accusations and receive the public’s forgiveness by filling their afternoons with laughs and positivity.