Written by Hiam Sakakini

Key points from this article:

  • The buck stops with the leader on driving & role modelling culture aligned behaviours
  • Leader and Leadership alignment on Culture is crucial
  • How good Culture makes good business sense
  • Can Ellen survive this? If so, what does she need to do?
A wobbling million dollar empire

I’ve been watching the Ellen Degeneres ‘Toxic Workplace’ story unfold in the media with a keen eye. Mindful not to jump to conclusions and throw out an opinion that amounts to jumping on the bandwagon.

I’ve scoured the internet: the Kevin T. Porter Twitter thread that kicked this all off, Glassdoor reviews (which are the closest we have to an insider’s view of what it’s like to work at The Ellen DeGeneres show) and many other articles that have popped up covering this story.  In today’s world of hyper transparency, it’s virtually impossible to hide what it’s like to work at any company.

Let’s be clear, The Ellen show is more than a show. It has mushroomed into an Empire led by an incredibly savvy business woman. Ellen understands how people are consuming content and has diversified her channels to reach audiences in long and bit-size formats. With the launch of successful media products such as Ellen Tube and shows like ‘Momsplaining’ and “Relatable’, she has built a business that earns over $380M and exceeds 1000 team members. 

Toxic workplace

There have been accusations of bullying, racism, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by executives on the show. Three of whom have recently been fired. Ellen blames the show’s fast growth for not noticing all of this under her nose “As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again

Ellen Degeneres Quote

So what happens if you’ve experienced this kind of behaviour as an employee at the Ellen show? In 2018 a New York Times reporter asked Ellen about tabloid stories featuring anonymous complaints about her not being kind to those she works with. Her response : That bugs me if someone is saying that because it’s an outright lie,” she said. “The first day I said: ‘The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don’t work here. No one is going to raise their voice or not be grateful. That’s the rule to this day’.

A universal truth

The portrait of Ellen as a fun, goofy, dancing daytime TV talk show host who inevitably makes me giggle on a lazy Sunday afternoon on the couch is now fundamentally incongruent to the “mean” boss who has been accused of not just allowing the alleged bullying, racist and toxic behaviour to fester but to encourage it in some instances.

Ultimately, you can argue this either way. Maybe Ellen is a compassionate leader who was genuinely unaware of the toxic culture festering in her Empire. Or instead, maybe Ellen herself is the toxic source. 

But there’s one thing that must be held as a universal truth in either case. As a leader, you have an obligation to know your culture. Your culture shapes your employees’s daily experience at work. And if you don’t build, review and monitor your culture then it’s going to develop without you. 

Top 4 tactics

We’ve helped dozens of leaders understand and shape their company culture. If I was working with Ellen, this is what I would have done to avert this disaster – for Ellen, but first and foremost for the people who have to go to work every day under the experience of bullying, racism and sexism. 

1. Put culture firmly on the agenda.

Make a conscious decision on ‘How we want to be as an organisation’. For example do we want to be inclusive, supportive and kind? What does that really look like, what behaviours would we see.

2. Measure what matters.

If you know how you want to be, then it becomes easy to measure against. Surveys can be over-engineered but the key is simply to measure what matters and to repeat at regular intervals with the same questions. A good response rate is over 80% of your org.

3. Make it safe to talk about your experience.

Sending out a survey doesn’t mean that you’ll learn how your employees feel. If your employees feel unsafe under their direct manager or in the organisation generally, then they might provide false answers to protect themselves. You need to ensure that your employees know that you truly care about how they feel, that you’ll commit to changing your culture if something’s wrong, and that their voices will be heard.

4. Act on the results.

Nothing is more frustrating to employees than giving their honest opinion and experience and seeing no change as a result. Set up a mechanism for change and dig deeper into the results where there is ambiguity with focus groups. Talk about what you’ve heard, the changes you are making and repeat the whole process often.

Culture isn’t words on a wall. It’s what you experience when you walk through the doors of your organization. It’s the guiding force that defines how you interact with your peers, your team and your customers. As a leader, you are ultimately responsible for your company culture. But you need to know what it is first.

Ellen’s workplace is toxic. Is yours? I offer a free culture consultation to assess where your workplace culture is at.

Book a meeting and let’s chat about it. 

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