After rising to stardom on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990s, Dr. Phil has built an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars on helping improve people’s mental health, dispensing advice to guests on his talk show in his trademark brand of snarky straight talk.
But behind the scenes, a dozen current and former employees say they experienced verbal abuse in a workplace that fosters fear, intimidation, and racism. Seven of the employees also say guests, who are often brought onto the show when they’re already in a vulnerable state, are manipulated and treated unethically. Despite working on a TV show that purports to help improve people’s lives, 11 of the employees — all of whom asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation and retribution — say their own mental health was damaged and disrupted at the expense of working for Phil McGraw.
“Everyone was just pretty miserable. You would walk into the building and there was just a palpable dread and anxiety,” one former employee said. “Dr. Phil — the show about mental health where everybody who works on it has terrible mental health because our work conditions were really bad.”
Another former employee said the only brief reprieve they felt was during their summer hiatus from filming, but that all changed as they got ready to head back to work.
“I would have nightmares. I would literally be working in my sleep and have nightmares about something being wrong or not turning in something the right way,” the former employee said. “Even when I quit, I had to go to therapy for it, which is crazy because you’re working for a therapist.”
None of the people BuzzFeed News spoke with witnessed McGraw directly engaging in the sort of toxic and abusive behavior they said they experienced from others on the set or believe that he even saw the abuse. However, two current and 10 former employees on his show said it was common to be screamed at and berated by executive producer Carla Pennington and other senior-level staffers. “How can he not know?” said 31-year-old Tiffany Clark, who was part of Paramount Pictures’ rotating page program, which included work on Dr. Phil, from 2019 until 2020.
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Seven of the employees said they were encouraged to perpetuate racist stereotypes onscreen, while two others alleged they experienced racism behind the scenes. In text messages reviewed by BuzzFeed News, employees also expressed concerns about booking guests with a history of mental illness and not feeling adequately prepared to work with them.
One former employee said they were even instructed to make sure a guest on the show didn’t take her prescribed medication.
“We were specifically instructed, ‘Make sure that she doesn't take her medication before she goes onstage,’ because they wanted her to look unstable and quote-unquote, ‘crazy,’ for lack of a better term,” the employee said. “She did take the medication because no one got there in time and I remember thinking, ‘My God, I don't want to be the one to tell them or dissuade them from that.’ And that's all for the sake of TV. Obviously this girl should be on her medication and that's what we're trying to get her help for, but for the sake of TV they wanted her to look off the rails.”
Attorneys for McGraw and Pennington categorically denied every allegation made in this story, insisting that Dr. Phil in no way fosters racism, inappropriate interactions with guests, bullying and harassment, or any other unprofessional behavior.
“Dr. McGraw categorically denies racist conduct and CBS does not tolerate racist conduct,” McGraw’s attorney H. Patrick Morris told BuzzFeed News.
A spokesperson for Dr. Phil also told BuzzFeed News in a statement that McGraw and his “diverse team of more than 200 proud staff, many of whom have been here for two decades, have sincerely and respectfully worked with thousands of appreciative guests.”
“From the beginning, show executives have strived to create a collaborative, safe, and open environment for Dr. Phil McGraw and all staff and guests,” the spokesperson added. “We are grateful for the overwhelming number of proud, dedicated colleagues who have helped achieve our sustained success through 20 seasons of the program with many more to come.”
McGraw’s attorney also said that McGraw “supports and believes in Carla Pennington and her team of Supervising Producers and Co-Executive Producers.”
“Carla does not behave inappropriately. She has the complete confidence of Dr. McGraw,” Morris said in a statement. “She is beloved by her staff personally and respected professionally. The allegations against her are absurd and demonstrably false. It is indeed rare for an Executive Producer to be in that position for 20+ years and she has been with CBS for almost 35 years.”
A group of seven current and former employees who were referred by a publicist for Pennington said the environment can get “intense” and heated in certain moments but insisted that the overall work culture was positive and supportive. Representatives for Pennington and McGraw also pointed to the show’s 20th anniversary special, in which employees spoke highly of their experiences working on Dr. Phil.
The current and former employees whom BuzzFeed News spoke to and who say they had more negative experiences worked below the top level of executives, ranging from senior staff to lower-level positions.
According to two current and 10 former employees, there’s a division of treatment between executive and senior-level producers and lower-level employees like associate producers and production assistants. The less senior you are, they say, the worse you’re treated. This is especially true in the control room, which eight former employees described as a “war zone.” Five of the employees, one current and four former, say that Pennington screamed and cursed at them over the smallest of details, allegedly calling people “idiots,” “stupid,” and “retards” and threatening to fire people.
“It was traumatizing. It was the worst hour of your life,” a former employee said. “There was full-blown yelling, calling people idiots, and slamming doors, and it would not be acceptable in any other job in any other business. Then after, everybody’s upset and everybody's crying.”
In addition to denying the claims made by current and former employees, a spokesperson for Dr. Phil called it a “click-bait story” containing “verifiably and objectively false characterizations and reporting,” which the spokesperson said “raises significant doubts about the credibility of the other unsubstantiated, anonymous claims relating to the show and its staff, which are not true.”
Pennington’s attorney, Bryan J. Freedman, told BuzzFeed News in a statement, “This story is a work of fiction. BuzzFeed’s singular focus of creating a potentially viral story came at the expense of truth and facts. BuzzFeed spent months crafting a desired narrative and curating unnamed sources to anonymously support their manufactured story.”
Dr. Phil premiered in September 2002 after McGraw — who has a doctorate in clinical psychology but isn’t licensed — found success doing segments on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He has become one of the most recognizable and familiar daytime talk show hosts of the last two decades, alongside the likes of Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ellen DeGeneres, who earned tens of millions of dollars themselves and even more for their television networks. But with societal changes around workplace environments, wealth and pay inequality being at an all-time high, and more critical conversations about on-set appropriate behavior, crew members and other employees said they are speaking out not just to protect themselves but to make a change for future generations.
McGraw and the company that produces the show, Peteski Productions, have faced allegations of wrongdoing in the past. In 2016, a former employee alleged in a lawsuit that McGraw locked her and other workers in a room where he unleashed a tirade over leaked information to the media. The case was eventually dismissed on mutual agreement. A number of guests have also publicly alleged that they were given access to drugs and alcohol before going on camera — allegations the show has strongly denied.
In addition to past public allegations against the show, current and former employees also told BuzzFeed News about their experiences working for Dr. Phil. When Clark worked at Paramount Pictures’ rotating page program, she dreaded being sent to work for the show.
As someone whose job it was to check in, seat, and look after the show’s audience by handing out prizes and getting snacks, Clark said she was “mercilessly berated” by a supervisor who verbally abused employees, threatened their jobs, and bragged about having made other staffers quit. It was so grueling that she begged coworkers to trade shifts when it was her turn to work on the Dr. Phil set.
“You just have to learn to take it or you quit,” Clark said. “As pages there was nothing we could do. If we were assigned to the show we’d have to go and take the abuse.”
In one instance, Clark said she was left to deal with an angry group of audience members who were overbooked for the show without any guidance or instruction from her supervisor. Later, Clark said she was blamed for the overbooking when the audience complained. Afterward, she said a supervisor “yelled and screamed” at her in front of a roomful of staffers.
“I could’ve been physically harmed by those people,” Clark said. “Some of them were so enraged it was crazy, and then to get berated afterward like I caused the problem, like I overbooked the show, like I couldn’t make those people leave, that was the most horrible experience.”
Not only were employees afraid of being reprimanded in front of everyone in the control room, but five of the employees said Pennington and other senior producers would openly mock guests who came on the show, specifically making remarks about the appearances and behaviors of people of color and mimicking the way Black and Latino guests spoke.
The alleged verbal abuse from Pennington also extended outside of the control room, employees said. In text messages provided to BuzzFeed News, employees said the show’s executive producers are “toxic,” which trickles down through the rest of the staff.
“She reprimanded me so severely that I couldn’t breathe,” another former employee told BuzzFeed News. “It has nothing to do with my performance and everything to do with whether or not they liked you. They would look me dead in the eye and go, ‘Do you even know what day it is? Do you even know? Are you that stupid?’”
A current employee described the work environment as “chaotic,” “hostile,” and “overbearing.”
“Everybody's basically always on the verge of losing their job over something that could be a miscommunication or something that just gets muddled up and then needs to be fixed,” the employee said. “I’ve worked jobs where people get angry, but this is a whole other level of just strange, neurotic behavior, and it’s just unceasing, it’s just constant. There is no relief.”
The employee said any minor slip-up, including listing recipients of an email in the wrong order, leads to getting yelled at “for hours and hours on a regular basis,” which they think is ironic given the fact that McGraw is “very preachy on air about treating people right.”
When working with guests on the show who would be interviewed on camera by McGraw, former employees say they were encouraged to manipulate and convince them of whatever they needed to hear in order to secure the booking. They also said that they were told to find guests who appeared upper-middle class “and not like trailer trash,” obtain photos of guests smiling ahead of time so they could see what their teeth looked like, ask personal questions about their mental health and sexual history without proper training or guidance, and said they were discouraged from booking people of color.
In an email obtained by BuzzFeed News from 2018, a booking supervisor told employees, “The less you share with guests the better. They are on a NEED to know basis…you all do a great job of convincing them you’re friends, just make sure you keep a firm line in the sand & not say too much they will be the first ones to throw you under the bus (TRUST ME).”
“We walk this really weird tightrope of booking people whose stories are just juicy enough for TV without being straight-up illegal, but we also kind of blur the lines on what we choose to share in the story to make it palatable for network television,” a former employee explained. “It feels very ethically inappropriate.”
Morris denied that employees are encouraged not to book guests of color, that the show takes advantage of people with mental health issues, or that Pennington fostered an unprofessional environment.
The work exacted a heavy toll, some former employees said. “I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I couldn’t talk to anybody about how fucked up these things were and how I felt complicit in a system that was really exploiting people who were at their lowest points,” a former employee said. “I thought, This is my job. My job is to get paid $10 an hour to go into a building for maybe 40 or 60 hours, manipulate mentally vulnerable people to come on a television show and potentially be exploited for an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, and then send them on a plane back home to go deal with the rest of their lives. To think about the gravity of the very small part, but the part that I played in that, it kept me up at night, quite frankly.”
Other employees say their mental health and well-being were also directly affected by the way they were treated by supervisors and senior producers. In text messages between employees reviewed by BuzzFeed News, former staffers described their concerns to each other, including, “I almost had a panic attack this morning thinking about the show” and “It’s a total destruction of my physical and mental well-being.”
“This show destroyed me mentally, emotionally, and physically,” one former employee said. “They make you feel like not only are you not worth anything, every single day you’re told how shitty you are, how horrible your work is, yet you're indispensable so they don't fire you. That type of mental game emotionally and physically carries with us into other positions after we leave the show.”
One former employee said they quit the show after only working there for one month because of the toll it took on their mental health. BuzzFeed News reviewed text messages from this employee telling friends they “need a job that has a healthy work environment” and ultimately quit because it was “ruining” their life. BuzzFeed News also spoke to three people whom this former employee told at the time about their negative experience and why they left.
Their mental health "really suffered" while working there, a friend of one former employee said, adding that they had called it the worst job they ever had.
“I remember when [they] quit because [they] literally couldn’t take it anymore,” the friend, who asked not to be identified, said.
None of the dozen people who told BuzzFeed News they experienced abuse said they filed any complaints with human resources or with their union. Those employees said they were afraid to report producers’ behavior because they didn’t want to be retaliated against. According to 11 employees, it was also difficult to discuss their experiences with CBS HR representatives because the show films on the Paramount lot, so the only on-site people they could go to were known to be close with McGraw and Pennington.
“If you complain to HR, you might as well expect to be fired,” one former employee said. “They will do anything and everything they can to keep anything under wraps.” Representatives for Dr. Phil denied this.
A spokesperson for ViacomCBS told BuzzFeed News that “creating safe and inclusive working environments is a top priority” for the company. “We provide multiple avenues through which employees can report complaints to the company both on the record and anonymously,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We encourage any employee who believes that they or others within the company have been treated unfairly to report it without a fear of retaliation. We take seriously all such reports.”
Even after leaving the show, 11 employees say the toxic environment at the Dr. Phil Show is common knowledge in the entertainment industry.
“Every interview I’ve had in entertainment where I mentioned that I worked on the Dr. Phil Show says, ‘Oh that’s like getting a Purple Heart in Hollywood,’” a former employee said. “Everyone knows the reputation that this show has.”
But employees who were referred to BuzzFeed News by representatives for Pennington contradicted those assessments. Michelle Thomasy, who has been the teleprompter operator since the show’s inception 20 years ago, said she would never use the term “war zone” to describe Dr. Phil’s control room.
“It is the nature of television production, the nature of the type of show that we are doing,” Thomasy said. “It can be intense, it depends on the topic of the show, it depends on a lot of different factors, but it is always professional and it is always something that I walk away with personally knowing that we’ve made a difference and that we are doing a good job there.”
Thomasy added, “I will say at some point, everyone in that room has said something and sometimes when things are moving quickly, yes, you will yell and say ‘Hey, where am I going? What am I doing? Can I get an answer to this?’ and you’re trying to get a response from someone, but it is not malicious and it is not intended to attack another person.”
The seven current and former employees who were referred to BuzzFeed News by Pennington’s publicist also said they had never experienced or witnessed any racism behind the scenes. While some said they had heard the environment described as toxic by their colleagues and they understood why some employees’ mental health suffered while at Dr. Phil, the seven employees said they never heard Pennington use, as one put it, “derogatory or demeaning comments about a guest” and didn’t hear the executive producer berate, yell, or curse at staffers. Instead, some described the control room and their overall work environment as “supportive, collaborative, and professional.”
“I find it to be an inclusive, positive environment,” the show’s director of 20 years, who asked not to be named, told BuzzFeed News. “I think a control room in general can be intense, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a negative environment, nor does it mean that people would be treated in a disrespectful way. There can be intense situations that happen that don’t compromise the way people are treated… It is very much a family environment.”
Anthony McLemore, a former senior segment producer for 13 years at Dr. Phil, said the talk show is a “fast-moving ship” where “everything isn’t always sugarcoated” because of time constraints and the quick-paced environment, which he said is typical for daytime television. McLemore also described having success reporting a producer to “the in-house HR person” because he felt “he wasn’t a good leader and just had a bad habit of chastising the team if the show went wrong.”
“If he was raked over the coals for the mistakes that he made, then that particular producer would take it out on the team,” McLemore said. “I voiced my misgivings and basically stated that I’ve worked hard, I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do, and I’m not going to put up with that kind of behavior. So I went off that team and my issues were addressed.”
However, McLemore acknowledged it’s also a big enough show “where everybody has different experiences.”
“You're talking about a show with as many as 150 people on it, so there’s a lot of personalities and a lot of dynamics working in one place. It’s not always as cohesive as one would like,” McLemore said. “My last couple of producers were fantastic, we were so simpatico that our level of stress was never about us, it was just whatever the situation was and the cards we were dealt with guests and situational things. I’m not saying that we always get along, but we made a pact a long time ago that whatever happens in the heat of the moment doesn’t impact our friendship or whatever. You have to look at it like we're on the battlefield and sometimes this type of show is a battlefield.”
In 2018, McGraw signed a deal with CBS to host Dr. Phil through its 2022–23 season, which would be the show’s 21st. The current and former employees say they’re speaking out now because they want to see a shift in how staffers are treated on the show for however long it remains on TV.
But others doubt that change will happen. Another former employee said that the Dr. Phil Show has been operating under these conditions for decades, and people who have been working in the entertainment industry for that long were taught to normalize toxic behavior and abuse. As long as the show is still on the air, this person said, the problems will persist.
“These shows that started 20 something years ago are still going by those standards. Even with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, they're antiquated shows that haven’t caught up,” they said. “We've created these kinds of monsters and they've gotten away with it, and so they are untouchable.” ●
This article was updated to clarify the outcome of the 2016 lawsuit.