Fans of Ellen DeGeneres Feel Betrayed by Reports of Toxic Work Environment at The Ellen DeGeneres Show
8/13/2020 – – For the past 17 seasons, Ellen DeGeneres has signed off from her daytime television talk show with these uplifting words: “Be kind to one another.” So it’s not surprising that fans were shocked and disappointed by allegations reported last month in Buzzfeed that the workplace environment at the program was one of “racism, fear and intimidation.”
Troubling charges by dozens of employees, including instances of sexual misconduct by the show’s senior producers, were credible enough for Warner Bros. to launch an internal investigation. Responding to, but not taking full responsibility for this toxic culture, Ellen offered an apology to the staff:
“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.”
While some stars have come forward in Ellen’s defense, social media chatter has been very negative, spawning speculation that the show will be cancelled (Warner Bros. says no chance). One thing is for certain: the Ellen brand — synonymous with “niceness” — has taken a major hit.
In Chapter 4 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“How Crises Typically Play Out”), we discuss 10 predictable tendencies that play out in crises. Here’s the one most applicable to Ms. DeGeneres’s predicament:
The severity and duration of a crisis are determined in large part by the level of betrayal.
The closer a company or individual comes to violating their core purpose and promises, the more damaging a crisis will be. What you stand for is important. Any crisis situation that runs counter to that, leaving stakeholders with a feeling of betrayal, will be a doozy.
Betrayal of a core purpose is one of the reasons the Catholic Church’s and Boy Scouts of America’s pedophilia crises are so horrendous. Arthur Andersen’s mishandling of their auditing responsibilities with Enron was close enough to the bone to bring down the respected accounting firm. A teacher molesting a student, a doctor administering lethal medication, a police officer violating his or her oath to protect — like the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police — create the most difficult types of reputational threats.
I’m not equating the severity of Ellen DeGeneres’s alleged transgressions with the evils outlined above. But she has a lot of repair work to do to reestablish the authenticity of her brand. The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman in his August 7 article titled “Ellen DeGeneres’s Relatability Crisis” points out: “More than most anything, a television personality such as DeGeneres needs to come across as genuine to a broad viewership; a two-faced Ellen won’t play. Her audiences, celebrity guests, and sponsors want to reflect her nonthreatening warmth. They want to be part of her goofy dance.”
Her fans may feel betrayed right now, but I’m betting that Ellen earns back their trust and weathers this storm. Her comic genius and the accomplishments of her groundbreaking career give her plenty of reputational equity to spend in pursuit of forgiveness. She can begin by following her own motto behind as well as in front of the camera:
Be kind to one another.
UPDATE: Variety reported yesterday (8/17/20) that in response to the findings of the investigation by Warner Bros. three senior producers were fired from the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the program’s DJ Stephen “tWitch” Boss was named co-executive producer, and all staff members, including Ellen, will participate in diversity and inclusion workshops.