Is Ellen Changing Her Show’s Toxic Workplace Culture?

Ellen DeGeneres' workplace troubles

Ellen DeGeneres upgraded staff perks in the wake of a toxic workplace controversy. The Ellen Show staff now have five paid days of annual leave and are granted paid time off for doctor’s appointments or family matters. Neither was available before the scandal broke. When it comes to staff benefits Ms Ellen is not exactly, as Nicki Minaj once rapped, The Generous Queen. But with these new perks – which include birthdays off – DeGeneres hits back at claims that she is “notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”

The talk show host recently become controversial after a Buzzfeed exposé accused her of creating a hostile work environment. Allegations leveled against DeGeneres include racism, instigating abusive behavior, and ignoring accusations of sexual harassment made against senior members of her staff. As the scandal unfolds in the wake of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, the future of The Ellen DeGeneres Show looks increasingly uncertain.

DeGeneres is a globally recognizable media personality, actress, and gay rights icon. Her meteoric rise to fame began in the ‘90s, when she was the face of the sitcom Ellen. The show broke new ground in lesbian representation when Ellen herself came out as lesbian, and Ellen Morgan – her character – followed suit. DeGeneres’ career went from strength to strength. She endeared herself to a new generation of fans playing Dory, a friendly but forgetful fish, in the Finding Nemo films. But, for seventeen years, the crown jewel in her brand has been Ellen’s talk show.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show has aired over 2,700 episodes, spanning 17 seasons. It has received 171 Daytime Emmy Award nominations and won 61 Daytime Emmy Awards. DeGeneres’ awkward dance moves became a cultural phenomenon. The show’s flashy acts of philanthropy and heart-warming human-interest stories won DeGeneres a loyal audience. And her quirky style of interviewing celebrities elevated Ellen to superstardom.

Through hosting her talk show, DeGeneres has crafted a public persona who is self-deprecating and kind. Ellen’s brand is very much rooted in the wholesome. But these behind-the-scenes accounts of The Ellen DeGeneres Show tell a different story.

One current and ten former employees of The Ellen DeGeneres Show spoke to Buzzfeed, giving testimonies of how they were allegedly mistreated during their time with the talk show. The whistle-blowers are anonymous; whereas DeGeneres is internationally recognizable, and presides over a multimillion-dollar empire, their careers in the entertainment industry are altogether more precarious.

A Black woman who worked for The Ellen DeGeneres Show gave an account of racist actions and words she was subject to – not only from her colleagues, but her bosses. From demeaning comments about her box braids to a main writer flat out telling her they only bothered to remember the names of white employees, her time on The Ellen DeGeneres Show was plagued by prejudice. And it didn’t stop there: she was paid substantially less than white colleagues in similar roles.

“I’ve been too afraid to say anything,” this former employee told Buzzfeed, “because everyone knows what happens when you say something as a Black person. You’re blacklisted.” She has since left the industry altogether.

Despite the ‘be kind’ ethos behind The Ellen DeGeneres Show, critics have been quick to point out that compassion was in short supply during production. Another former employee took a month of medical leave, checking into a mental health facility to recover from a suicide attempt. But – the week this person was supposed to return – they were told their job had been eliminated.

“You’d think that if someone just tried to kill themselves, you don’t want to add any more stress to their lives,” they said. According to Buzzfeed, this story was corroborated by four colleagues and medical records.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show attracted yet more criticism when Buzzfeed published a second exposé, this time accusing the program’s Executive Producers of sexual misconduct and harassment. Kevin Leman – Head Writer and Executive Producer – is alleged to have asked a subordinate employee to give him a hand job or oral sex in the toilets during a work party back in 2013. There are separate accounts of Leman groping and sexually assaulting ex-employees.

Another Executive Producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ed Glavin, “had a reputation for being handsy with women.” Five separate testimonies describe him touching junior female employees inappropriately – often in front of a room full of colleagues.

“You could definitely see the creep factor and the creepy touching. That was out in the open for everybody to see,” said one of the women concerned. “Obviously, no one wants that and no one wants to be uncomfortably touched by someone… but you didn’t want to piss them off or you would be fired, so it was just that culture of fear.”

Both Leman and Glavin were axed from The Ellen DeGeneres Show following an investigation in response to Buzzfeed’s revelations. But are these firings and new employee benefits a case of too little, too late?

The Buzzfeed exposés are not the first public criticisms of DeGeneres or the workplace she has curated. In 2018 the New York times ran a profile with the headline Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think. A viral Twitter thread of Ellen anecdotes gained over 2,000 responses – many of them sharing less than flattering stories. And one of Ellen’s old Tweets about how it “felt good” to make an “employee cry” resurfaced, retweeted thousands of times alongside critical commentary. What many people failed to mention is that joy with the source of those tears: Ellen had just surprised her employee, Jeannie Klisiewicz, with a cruise.

Yes, the saltier side of DeGeneres makes regular appearances – both in press interviews and in her Netflix special, Relatable. But, as Hadley Freeman observes in the Guardian: “Whether [DeGeneres] is significantly worse than every other entitled Hollywood asshole, or is just getting more grief for it due to being a woman/gay/known for niceness is a question that may be impossible to unpick.”