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2020 13th Annual Essence Black Women In Hollywood Awards Luncheon - Inside

Source: Rich Polk / Getty

Essence Magazine is coming under fire as it celebrates its 50th year anniversary for allegedly mistreating its Black women employees—only this time it’s supposedly at the hands of other Black women.

 

On Sunday (Jun 28) in an anonymous essay posted to the Medium, the author-listed only as “Black Female Anonymous”-discloses unfair business practices used by the iconic Black publication including sexual misconduct and harassment, unfair pay, and abuse of power by senior staff.

“We present ourselves under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, intimidation, and the maligning of our media careers,” they wrote. “We demand the immediate resignation of Chief Executive Officer Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu. Historically a haven for Black female media professionals who couldn’t get roles at major publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast due to racial bias, the magazine’s very first cover in May 1970 boldly presented a Black woman in a natural afro with a tantalizing cover line asking Black men, do you love me? Today, the company’s predominately Black female workforce is asking Essence itself, do you love us like we love you?”

The scathing write-up details an allegedly toxic work environment, before accusing CEO Richelieu Dennis of only supporting Black women as a“surface-level commitment” but adds that his commitment is led by “greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite.” The author also alleges that Dennis “has a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff” noting that women who rejected his advance were subjected to being “openly sexually harassed them at private company events.”

“New owner and CEO Richelieu Dennis, Michelle Ebanks, Joy Collins Profet and Moana Luu collaboratively immortalize an extremely unhealthy work culture,” the writers continued. “Scores of talented Black women have been either wrongfully laid off or forced to resign from the company in the past two years. 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 make up over 80% of the company’s workforce, they are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism, and classism.”

According to the anonymous source, in the summer of 2019, the staff was required to sign an NDA to prohibit them from discussing their grievances with anyone including family, when staff inquired about the unusual agreement, the writer states that they were met with intimidation tactics by the senior staff and Human Resources, which is led by Dennis’s wife, Martha Dennis.

“In the latter half of 2019, Richelieu tried to force Essence employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements that exclusively protects his family from liability or disparagement after a string of wrongful layoffs and other potentially libelous business activity,” the writer continued. “When staff raised questions about the NDA, the executive leadership team launched a series of intimidation tactics on its staff. Richelieu’s wife Martha Dennis is the company’s Head of Human Resources, a blatant conflict of interest. Martha is complicit in her husband’s abuse of power. For Essence employees under Dennis family leadership, there is no possible way to share your grievances or frustrations when the family matriarch is the head of HR.”

Although the writer stops short of giving verifiable incidents (clearly due to the attempt to remain anonymous), it does paint a severely negative picture of the magazine that has claimed to champion Black women for the last 50-years. The anonymous poster also claims Ebanks, who stepped down as CEO in March, “pointed to the door and told staff they could leave,” when an employee asked about pay raises at a company town hall.

“Michelle Ebanks is nearly singlehandedly responsible for establishing an extremely toxic culture at the company since her hire as president in 2005 when the company was 100% acquired by Time Inc. Michelle’s quest for total power and her corporate influence on the executive leadership at Time Inc. signaled the quiet firing of the iconic Susan L. Taylor in 2008. The company’s culture hasn’t been the same since. Although Michelle recently “resigned” as CEO, she continues her history of tactically bullying and gaslighting staff as a board member. At a company town hall during the second half of 2019, some employees asked Michelle about pay raises at market and industry rate in New York City, Michelle, then CEO casually pointed to the door and told staff they could leave if they could find better compensation elsewhere.”

The bombshell post served as an unwanted distraction from its annual culture festival that kicked off last week. According to Page Six, leadership staff at Essence called for an emergency zoom meeting on Sunday but it wasn’t to discuss the expose, but more so to discuss business as usual.

“The editor was concerned about this going on into Essence Festival and was worried about it upsetting Festival sponsors. She never addressed the accusations or offered people to reach out with concerns. It made it even worse,” a source told the publication.

Essence has responded to the claim stating that the allegations are false, noting that an internal audit of their HR practices produced no evidence of wrongdoing.

“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.”

The statement goes on to say that while the iconic publication isn’t perfect, they strive to be transparent with employees before adding that they will not succumb to the “cancel culture.”

“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. 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.”

Check out the full article here and read ESSENCE‘s full response below.

A statement from ESSENCE:

THIS STATEMENT IS IN RESPONSE TO A RECENT ANONYMOUS POST. WE DENY THE ACCUSATIONS AND REFUTE THEM WITHOUT RESERVATION.

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.

Anonymous Essay Slams ESSENCE Mag For Alleged Sexual Misconduct, Unfair Business Practices Towards Black Women  was originally published on hiphopwired.com

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