Ellen DeGeneres has built her worldwide, multimillion-dollar brand on the motto “be kind,” with lavish giveaways and acts of charity. But behind the scenes, current and former employees on her leading daytime show say they faced racism, fear, and intimidation.
“That ‘be kind’ bullshit only happens when the cameras are on. It’s all for show,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “I know they give money to people and help them out, but it’s for show.”
BuzzFeed News spoke to one current and 10 former employees on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from the award-winning NBC daytime talk show and others in the entertainment industry. They said they were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals. One employee, who claims she was fed up with comments about her race, essentially walked off the job. Others said they were also instructed by their direct managers to not speak to DeGeneres if they saw her around the office.
Most of the former employees blamed executive producers and other senior managers for the day-to-day toxicity, but one former employee said that, ultimately, it’s Ellen’s name on the show and “she really needs to take more responsibility” for the workplace environment.
“If she wants to have her own show and have her name on the show title, she needs to be more involved to see what's going on,” one former employee said. “I think the executive producers surround her and tell her, ‘Things are going great, everybody's happy,’ and she just believes that, but it's her responsibility to go beyond that.”
In a joint statement to BuzzFeed News, executive producers Ed Glavin, Mary Connelly, and Andy Lassner said they take the stories of the employees "very seriously."
"Over the course of nearly two decades, 3,000 episodes, and employing over 1000 staff members, we have strived to create an open, safe, and inclusive work environment," they said. "We are truly heartbroken and sorry to learn that even one person in our production family has had a negative experience. It’s not who we are and not who we strive to be, and not the mission Ellen has set for us.
"For the record, the day to day responsibility of the Ellen show is completely on us. We take all of this very seriously and we realize, as many in the world are learning, that we need to do better, are committed to do better, and we will do better."
A Black woman who used to work on The Ellen DeGeneres Show told BuzzFeed News she experienced racist comments, actions, and “microaggressions” during her year and a half as an employee. She said when she was hired, a senior-level producer told her and another Black employee, “Oh wow, you both have box braids; I hope we don’t get you confused.” And at a work party, she said, one of the main writers told her, “I’m sorry, I only know the names of the white people who work here,” and other coworkers “awkwardly laughed it off” instead of coming to her defense.
When the former employee brought up issues of race and representation on the show and asked producers not to use offensive terms like “spirit animal” in segments, her colleagues called her “the PC police.”
When she started to speak up about the discrimination, she said, all of her colleagues distanced themselves from her.
“Whenever I brought up an issue to my white male boss, he would bring up some random story about some random Black friend that he had and how they managed to get over stuff,” she said. “He would use his Black friend as some way to say, ‘I understand your struggle.’ But it was all performative bullshit.”
After one year at Ellen, she said she asked for a raise after learning another recent hire made double for doing the same job, despite her having worked in the television industry for a decade. Her manager told her “they’d see what they could do,” but months went by and nothing happened, she said.
"They definitely don’t practice what they preach with the ‘be kind’ mantra."
The former employee said she was also called into a meeting with executive producer Ed Glavin, where she was reprimanded for her objections to the term “spirit animal,” asking for a raise, and suggesting employees on the show receive diversity and inclusion training.
“He said that I was walking around looking resentful and angry,” she said.
After the meeting, she left work for the day and never returned to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She said she has no plans to ever work in the entertainment industry again. For years, she felt “a fear of speaking out” but is now inspired to share her experience because of recent conversations about race in Hollywood and other workplaces.
“I feel like I’m not alone in this,” she said. “We all feel this. We’ve been feeling this way, but I’ve been too afraid to say anything because everyone knows what happens when you say something as a Black person. You’re blacklisted.”
The former employee also said her manager from Ellen recently reached out to her amid the Black Lives Matter protests to apologize for not being a better ally. But the former employee said it's too little, too late.
“I feel angry about the way I was treated, and I am always going to stand up for Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian people, regardless if they’re around,” she said. “I can’t not say anything. I’m not going to stop talking.”
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There have been rumors for years about DeGeneres being difficult and how many employees feel unhappy. In March, comedian Kevin T. Porter started a Twitter thread asking people to share “the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen [DeGeneres] being mean.” The tweet has more than 2,600 replies.
In April, Variety reported that employees were “distressed and outraged” by top-level producers who didn’t communicate details about their jobs and pay at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. DeGeneres’s former bodyguard also recently said he had had a negative experience with her at the 2014 Oscars, calling the TV host’s treatment of others “demeaning.”
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. Television, which distributes the show, told Variety that the crew was consistently paid during the pandemic, although at reduced hours, and “acknowledged that communication could have been better, but cited complications due to the chaos caused by COVID-19.”
A current employee told BuzzFeed News that on May 1, the same day the story about the former bodyguard was published, executive producers took the rare move of holding an all-staff meeting over Zoom to address the negative stories and low morale.
“I think it is a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to the show’s brand,” a former employee said. “They pull on people’s heartstrings; they do know that’s going to get likes and what people are going to go for, which is a positive message. But that’s not always reality.”
After working on The Ellen DeGeneres Show for nearly a year, one former employee said they took medical leave for one month to check into a mental health facility for a suicide attempt. But the week they returned to work, they were told their position was being eliminated.
“You'd think that if someone just tried to kill themselves, you don’t want to add any more stress to their lives,” the employee, whose story was corroborated by four other employees and medical records, told BuzzFeed News.
“Some of the producers talk openly in public about addiction and mental health awareness, but they’re the reason there’s a stigma,” they said. “They definitely don’t practice what they preach with the ‘be kind’ mantra."
Another former employee said they were fired after an unexpectedly difficult year that required them to take time away from the job on three occasions: medical leave for three weeks after they were in a car accident, working remotely for two days to attend a family member’s funeral, and then three days off to travel for another family member’s funeral. Each request was a battle with supervisors and HR, they added.
“That’s the definition of a toxic work environment, where they make you feel like you’re going insane and then you’re like, no, everything I was feeling was right. It was all leading up to this,” the former staffer, whose story was corroborated by five former employees and medical records, said.
A third former employee said they were given a warning for creating a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for medical costs that weren’t covered by their company health insurance and then sharing it on social media.
Just 24 hours after posting the GoFundMe, they said, they were called into the department head’s office and told to take it down because of concerns it might hurt DeGeneres’s image.
“They discovered my fundraiser, then got mad at me. … They were more concerned about Ellen’s brand instead of helping me out,” the former employee, whose story was corroborated by four other employees, told BuzzFeed News.
About one month later, this employee said they were fired after posting a selfie laughing with coworkers at the office on a personal Instagram story — a violation of their contract — even though others had posted similar photos before.
“Be kind to the world,” they said, “not your employees.”
According to employees, there’s a division between staff members who work on the show: people who “drink the Kool-Aid” and are usually well-liked by producers, and people who recognize the work environment is toxic. Those who push back against senior producers don’t usually have their contracts renewed, former employees said.
“They hire people who maybe are inexperienced with how a functional, nontoxic work environment actually is, or someone who just wants to be in that atmosphere so bad that they'll put up with it,” one former employee claimed. “They kind of feed off of that, like, ‘This is Ellen; this is as good as it gets. You'll never find anything better than this.’”
According to former staffers, those who have “more likable” personality traits, who are willing to work the 10-plus-hour days without complaint, and who actively ignore how managers and senior-level producers treat others have been given new iPhones, JetBlue gift cards, and other swag the show keeps on hand from its sponsors.
“I remember feeling depressed and horrible and sad and just thinking that I can’t leave but I want to leave,” one former employee said. “Everyone was unhappy unless you were one of those people being favored.”
Some employees defended the show’s work culture, saying it’s typical of TV production, but other former employees with experience in the industry said The Ellen DeGeneres Show stood apart as particularly negative.
“We all have a kind of ‘this isn’t normal’ feeling about how people get treated there,” one former employee claimed. “And there’s this ushering out the door. Or your contract isn’t renewed the minute you ruffle anyone’s feathers. Or you don't show that you're extremely grateful and appreciative to work there.”
The employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they worked in a culture dominated by fear. One of them said a general feeling among staffers was “if you have an issue, don't even think about bringing it up.”
“I never felt like it was safe to go to my manager when I had issues — because this was the same person who would wait for me to go to the bathroom and then message me, asking me where I was and why I wasn’t at my desk,” one employee said.
“People focus on rumors about how Ellen is mean and everything like that, but that's not the problem. The issue is these three executive producers running the show who are in charge of all these people [and] who make the culture and are putting out this feeling of bullying and being mean,” another former employee claimed. “They feel that everybody who works at The Ellen Show is lucky to work there — ‘So if you have a problem, you should leave because we’ll hire someone else because everybody wants to work here.’”
And when people did leave — or get fired — managers never addressed the team about it, employees said.
“We had Friday morning weekly meetings, and sometimes people who we worked with forever just wouldn’t be there,” one former employee said, “like, they disappeared, and it was never explained." ●