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We need to talk about Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres has had a truly remarkable career. In the late 1980s she was a rising standup comic who gained fame from appearances such as the Tonight Show, and by the mid 90s she was the star of one of the most popular sitcoms on television. She was lauded for her bravery when she publicly came out as a lesbian both on the show and in real life, but the move cost her her career success. Her next ventures failed, and she was deemed to be such a risk in show business that she fought hard to land her role in Finding Nemo as well as current daytime talk show.

Then something magical happened. The quirky standup comic began to create a reputation for herself as being the kindest woman on television. Her show regularly profiled families in need, and surprised them with cash or gifts to ease their burdens. Her dancing with the audience grew famous for being lighthearted fun in an otherwise serious world. She regularly profiled guests who were going through grueling cancer treatment, or other difficult maladies, and claimed that the show’s levity elevated their spirits. After Oprah Winfrey retired in 2011, DeGeneres became the undisputed queen of daytime television.

Yet for years the tabloids have told a different story about DeGeneres herself. In 2018 she was questioned by the New York Times about tales that she was not as nice as she purported herself to be, which she denied as rumors. Behind the scenes, though, staff on her show told a much worse story. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, several dozen staff members came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from senior producers of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. An investigation was conducted, and three senior producers were let go. In a letter to her staff, DeGeneres said the show should be a place of ‘happiness’ where everyone is treated with respect.

The move did little to quell the backlash. Despite numerous celebrity supporters, other past guests of the show came forward with upsetting stories of DeGeneres’ personal conduct towards them which aligned with the broader allegations of a toxic workplace culture. Even though she has acknowledged that things have been difficult, DeGeneres has recently announced that she will soon be ending the Ellen DeGeneres show.

For her part, DeGeneres claims that the decision to end the show is hers, and that she needs something to challenge herself further. Yet, in an interview about the cancellation, the host also came out swinging in response to the past allegations against her. Speaking with the Today Show, DeGeneres described the allegations as “too orchestrated, too coordinated,” and added that as a woman “it did feel very misogynistic.” She also claimed that there’s no way she could have been expected to know about these issues when there are over 250 employees who work on the show.

It is very possible that DeGeneres did not know about the incidents that were taking place practically under her nose. The incidents as alleged were not isolated, but rather suggested a prolonged pattern of behavior over several years. Nevertheless, it is DeGeneres' backlash against her accusers which may actually represent her actual failure of leadership.

For almost two decades, DeGeneres has been at the helm of her television program, with her name emblazoned everywhere from wall signs to the popular ‘Ellen underwear.’ If the show is a ship of over 250 crew serving as passengers, then DeGeneres is most certainly its captain. It may well be true that she was unaware of the abhorrent behaviour of leaders in her organization, but that is irrelevant to the point.

Instead of walking away from the show with a quiet dignity, 64 Emmy wins, and incomprehensible amounts of money, DeGeneres’ comments in her recent interview suggest she is defensive, bitter, and believes she has been wronged in this whole process. When it comes to communication as a leader, DeGeneres had choices of how she could have handled her departure, and the manner that she has chosen to do so only serves to cast her in a further negative light.

Workplace harassment is a serious issue, and one that I had done a great deal of work with during my tenure as an employment lawyer. Yet in any difficult situation, the response from management determines how a business’ inner workings are communicated to the public, and they set the tone going forward. It was not DeGeneres’ choice to air her company’s ‘dirty laundry,’ but it was very much her choice to claim that she was the one proverbially hung out to dry.

All businesses will go through challenges, such as difficult financial situations or the abrupt departure of an employee. It is the leader of the company who ultimately decides how these issues will be communicated to the public. Sometimes it is better to outsource a third-party communications professional, or in some situations it may be best to say nothing at all. One thing is for sure though - blaming those who report to you is never a good look to go out on.

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