One of the worst experiences of my life was dealing with workplace bullying in a toxic environment. I was demoted in my duties. I had my projects taken from me. I was ignored. I was no longer invited to meetings. I got demeaned and gaslighted, getting told that my previously exceptional work was now not meeting standards and expectations. I developed new health problems, but was unable to take sick leave. I cried every day at work. I don’t wish this misery on anyone, so much so that I pivoted into health coaching precisely to empower others who were in similar situations. It seemed that everyone I spoke with about my negative experience also had their own story to share. There is a workplace toxicity epidemic, and no place is immune.
Literally, no place. In case you haven’t heard, the latest nightmare workplace was that of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Yes, that’s right – the “Be Kind Lady” was exposed this summer by multiple current and former employees for creating a toxic environment. Several people known to her personally and professionally have also claimed that she is mean and hateful, in direct contrast to her on-air personality. Let me be clear: I am a fan of Ellen’s, and a fan of the show, which makes this all the more disappointing and surreal.
On Monday, Ellen issued an apology as the opening monologue of her season premiere.
Here’s what she got right, what she got wrong, and how she (and we all) can do better.
First, the apology in and of itself is a big step. “I take responsibility for what happens at my show.” How many of us have been in toxic work environments where the blame was fully and unfairly laid upon us, with no admission of any guilt whatsoever? Where we were lied to (and about), disrespected, and gaslighted? I, for one, would have given so much to get an apology from my perpetrators and bullies.
Another big thing that she got right is showing her humanity. She acknowledges that her nickname is tough to live up to at every moment of every day, she is a person with real feelings, who does get “sad, mad, frustrated, and impatient” at times. And she’s right – she is allowed to not be perfect. But not to the severe detriment of others.
The third thing she got right is taking action. Three of the top producers at the Ellen Degeneres Show were fired. She announced this decision in a virtual team meeting, where she also outlined new policies in place for additional benefits like PTO and medical leave, two of the things she was called out on during the blow-up.
Unfortunately, a lot of things also went wrong.
The apology itself was a huge failure. “If I’ve ever let someone down, if I’ve ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that.” There’s no “if” about this. An apology with an “if” automatically places the blame on the victim for their feelings rather than on the perpetrator for her actions. What about, “I’m sorry that…”? I’m sorry that I harmed you. I’m sorry that my actions caused you deep emotional pain, financial consequences, and lingering self-doubt.
The apology was made with an air of humor. Yes, DeGeneres is a comedienne. No, this was not a laughing matter. The jokes that she made about having a tough summer were particularly insensitive. For anyone who has gone through bullying and toxicity at work, the pain and trauma are so real, and can last years after leaving the situation. Her embarrassment dims in comparison to the belittling behaviors, harassment, and harmful policies that threatened people’s lives and livelihoods.
While she did mention that she is coming from a place of “privilege and power,” she did not mention that she used that privilege power for intimidation and microaggressions, knowing that it was what would protect her. In fact, she did not mention any of the things that her employees suffered.
Her ignorance of the matter, whether actual or feigned, was also unacceptable. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened.” To not know about the systemic issues happening on your watch is to not be paying attention or to simply not care. One of the characteristics of a toxic environment is the shared dread and anxiety that permeates the space. There is an eerie quiet, a palpable discomfort. There is avoided eye contact, awkward pauses, and rushed conversations. It is noticeable and inescapable, especially when it is this prevalent. How can you not know?
Finally, and perhaps the most egregious, is the gaslighting that she displayed, not only to her employees, but to the audience as well. “I’m a pretty good actress. But, I don’t think that I’m that good that I could come out here every day for 17 years and fool you. This is me.” Workplace bullies are known to single out certain individuals for punishment but can project a more positive, confident, and trustworthy exterior to others. Their egos often get in the way when either the target is seen as a threat and makes them feel insecure. The targets are often the most confident and competent in the work setting. Those that more easily submit to their authority are spared. For Ellen to tell us that what has happened – what many accounts are corroborating – is not an accurate representation of herself insults our intelligence.
The most important part of being a leader is empathy. Ellen should be held accountable to the image she has represented and marketed herself over the course of almost two decades. Ellen: let’s hear about the specific wrongs that happened, and how you intend to fix them. Let’s hear about how you plan to be better.
Let’s all commit to making workplaces safe and supportive for everyone.
Be kind to one another, but be true to yourself.