Essence employees accuse leadership of bullying and sexual harassment

Essence magazine is hit with accusations of sexual harassment and ‘corporate bullying’ in anonymous blog post calling for resignation of leadership and claiming CEO has a ‘surface level commitment to black women driven by greed and his sexual appetite’

  • Essence denied all allegations in a lengthy statement on their website Monday 
  • Medium blog titled: ‘The Truth About Essence’ was published under byline ‘Black Female Anonymous’ on Sunday 
  • Authors accuse leadership of creating ‘an extremely unhealthy work culture’ and of capitalizing on the idea of black female empowerment without practicing it 
  • The group is demanding the resignation of CEO Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member Michelle Ebanks, COO Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu

Essence Magazine has been hit with accusations of sexual harassment, bullying and pay inequity, in a scathing essay penned by an anonymous group of staff members who claim the company has been ‘hijacked by corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power.’

Essence denied all allegations in a statement released one day after a Medium blog post published under the byline, ‘Black Female Anonymous’ on Sunday accused leadership of creating an ‘extremely unhealthy work culture.’

The coalition of employees called for the resignation of CEO Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member Michelle Ebanks, COO Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu.

The magazine, which caters to a black female audience, was described as the ‘most deceptive Black media company in America’, as the disgruntled authors claim the company capitalizes on the idea of black female empowerment brand but fails to practice it in the workplace. 

The authors of the essay, ‘Black Female Anonymous’ called for the resignation of CEO Richelieu Dennis (center)  Essence Ventures board member Michelle Ebanks (left)  COO Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu (right) for allegedly creating an ‘extremely unhealthy work culture’ 

The essay comes on the heels of the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebration. The anonymous group accused Essence of capitalizing on the idea of black female empowerment brand but failing to practice it in the workplace

The essay includes allegations of abuse, intimidation, wrongful layoffs, pay inequality and mistreatment of black female employees, however it provides little to no specific details on the alleged events. 

The group has launched a petition online demanding a change in leadership and urging corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Chase Bank, Coca Cola, Walmart and other brands to immediately ‘divest’ all its partnerships with the company.   

The authors accuse Dennis, 49, who acquired the publication in 2018, of having a ‘surface-level commitment to Black women driven by greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite.’

They claim the married CEO has a history sleeping with women on the Sundial staff [the parent company of Shea Moisture sold to Unilever in 2017] and preys on female employees at private company events. 

The essay, however, does not provide specifics on his alleged harassment or identify any women involved.  

Dennis is also accused of forcing employees to sign non-disclosure agreements in an effort to protect him from potential backlash from ‘wrongful layoffs’ and ‘libelous activity’ and allegedly intimidating black female staff who questioned the legal contract.  

The group has launched a petition online demanding a change in leadership and urging corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Chase Bank, Coca Cola, Walmart and other brands to immediately ‘divest’ all its partnerships with the company

They claim some black female staffers have experienced mental health issues and even ‘repeated miscarriages’ under the ‘malignant’ leadership of Ebanks who joined as president in 2005.

‘Under both leadership of Ebanks and Joy Collins Profet, Chief Operating Officer, staff suffered from intense anxiety, depression, evidenced by signs of extreme weight gain or loss, workforce isolation and surrendered resignations,’ the essay states. 

‘It is also sadly, under Michelle’s management that Black female staff on maternal leave or recently returned from work after giving birth, were dismissed from their roles or at minimum threatened with dismissal.’ 

During a company town hall in 2019, the authors claim Ebanks ‘casually pointed to the door and told staff they could leave’ when they asked about pay raises. 

They also allege the company ‘initiated interrogation tactics’ to ‘find the mole’ after a staff member anonymously sent in a complaint to Dennis and Ebanks regarding Moana Luu’s ‘workplace bullying.’   

‘Essence’s C-suite leadership team strategically tells the market it “serves Black women deeply” under the safe seal of 100% Black ownership, but for the Black women who makeup over 80% of the company’s workforce, they are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism,’ the essay states.  

‘Essence magazine is failing Black America. When Black media companies become unstable, it triggers the instability of the entire culture. 

‘The demand for a new America calls for the complete accountability of all Americans, even those of us in Black America and our cultural institutions. Black women deserve to feel safe both in white America and Black America.’

Essence responded to the allegations in a lengthy statement uploaded on its website on Monday, describing the last 24 hours since its release as ‘heartbreaking’.

‘[A]nonymity does not negate accountability. Facts will always matter, and we are not afraid of the truth. The allegations and mischaracterizations throughout – whether of pay inequity, intimidation, and otherwise – are unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character,’ the statement said. 

‘[O]ur message is simple – the accusations are false and we fully deny them. We are not succumbing to a cancel culture. We are not going to defame anyone. We are not meeting hurt with hurt. 

‘We know there is a lot of pain and a lot of healing that needs to happen in our communities, but we don’t have to destroy each other to heal.’

The essay comes on the heels of Essence’s 50th anniversary celebration.    

The Black Female Anonymous group has also launched an Instagram page ‘takebackessence’ as part of their campaign calling for new leadership. 

ESSENCE STATEMENT IN FULL  

Candidly, the last 24 hours have been heartbreaking. At ESSENCE, we uplift the voices of, provide platforms for, and generate opportunities that elevate Black women and communities and have done so for 50 years. It is the work we have committed ourselves to every single day since we were founded in 1970 and that has been accelerated over our past two years as a 100% Black family-owned company creating opportunities for Black creatives and leaders in an industry that has failed them.

When faced with challenging moments, we believe that truth and clarity are foremost, and after taking the time to connect with our teams and engage with each other, we want to be very clear about one thing. It is extremely important to us that we foster a safe, transparent and respectful workspace for everyone and that we expect that from everyone – not just those who work for us, but also those who work with us.

Still, anonymity does not negate accountability. Facts will always matter, and we are not afraid of the truth. The allegations and mischaracterizations throughout – whether of pay inequity, intimidation, and otherwise – are unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character. Further, accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct are extremely serious matters, and we fully understand the gravity of the implications. As such, these are also not claims to be recklessly and untruthfully thrown about – particularly when there have been no claims to respond to or any evidence of such defamatory accusations. In fact, there have been multiple comprehensive reviews of the HR function, and no evidence has been found to substantiate these anonymous claims. We have and will continue to review any legitimate claims of any nature that come to our attention.   

As a multi-platform media, technology and commerce company led predominately by Black women, we are committed to working with those who see and believe in our vision for ESSENCE. Our leaders and the business are committed to the economic elevation of our communities so that as we thrive, so do they and the Black people who invest in us with their time, talent, content, subscriptions and beyond. Every business decision we make is with that in mind – and we don’t always expect that everyone will agree with every decision. That would simply be unrealistic. However, we do make every effort to be transparent and open in what we are doing and why we are doing it as we work to transform this business to meet the potential it has always had. Some people will be open to the vision and the journey, and others will not. But in no way at any time does that give anyone the right to so grossly misrepresent the truth at best and make up lies at worst about who we are as an organization.

ESSENCE is a business in transition. It is never an easy or seamless process extracting a company from a conglomerate with shared services and establishing it as an independent with stand-alone functions. As part of the execution of our strategic growth plan, with our entire team, we have and will continue to create a culture that is our own and that reflects the values and vision for a Black-owned business.

This includes the June 2 announcement of the hiring of Caroline Wanga, a C-level executive who has a proven track record of building healthy teams and workplace cultures at a Fortune 50 company, as our new Chief Growth Officer. She is charged with HR/reshaping organizational culture, assessing and establishing operational strategies, new growth opportunities and market strategy. Prior, we built an HR function from the ground-up, supported by a family executive with over 25 years of HR experience who led the transition while we searched for a full-time HR lead; increased town halls from monthly to weekly to foster honest and transparent conversations across the organization; and instituted third-party services, including but not limited to the independent Employee Assistance Program to give employees additional external support and access to resources.

The fact is that this is an ongoing process given our two-year leadership of a 50-year- old company, but we’ve made significant strides in building this company back up and continue to accelerate the pace at which we evolve it for the benefit of our entire community. We are extremely proud of our teams and the work they continue to put into this transition, which is evident by the mounting of our first-ever streaming ESSENCE Festival last week, as well as a much-improved magazine and digital content, new world-class technology platforms, the expansion of experiences that elevate our culture and a deep commitment to enriching each other.

As we close, our message is simple – the accusations are false and we fully deny them. We are not succumbing to a cancel culture. We are not going to defame anyone. We are not meeting hurt with hurt. We know there is a lot of pain and a lot of healing that needs to happen in our communities, but we don’t have to destroy each other to heal. We will continue to do the work to be better every day and come together as an organization for each other and for Black women globally to build together, to change together, to rise together. #BlackWomenRiseTogether  

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