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The Toxic Work Environment at 'The Ellen Show' Isn't an Isolated Incident

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Dear Hollywood,

Your toxic work culture needs to stop. I’ve worked for you in some capacity for almost 20 years, and additionally, I work in the space of trauma recovery. I’ve noticed a few things.

Almost inevitably, your advertised job opening goes something like this: “Fast-paced production company seeks flexible, self-starting multitasker with strong attention to detail who thrives in a chaotic environment.” Now, I get that you have to fill a position in which the last person quit, having had a nervous breakdown. We all know that job “merged” with the work of six others who quit for the same reasons. But let’s get real here. You are not going to find someone who does the work of six people and also thrives in a “chaotic environment.”

Hollywood, the only people who thrive in chaotic environments are toxic people. Do you really want to hire another one? There are so many here already. Toxic people are awfully charming, especially in interviews. There’s never a screen test they won’t ace. They always look great on paper. They’re great in pitch meetings with investors. So great, in fact, who needs to bother meticulously checking their references? As busy as you are, it must be a relief when someone so self-confident walks through the door and convinces you they are the answer to all your staffing needs.

Toxic people may project all kinds of confidence, but often lack empathy, which make them uniquely suited to stepping on others to get ahead. Funny though, how the “chaos” you hire them to handle never goes away. Maybe they look good by proxy because everyone else in their department keeps having breakdowns around them. So obviously, you do what any discerning Hollywood executive does: you promote them. Eventually, the toxic person ends up running the town, and when the inevitable scandals break, you do a great job minimizing, deflecting and denying.

I know your workplace culture is toxic because of the assistant who takes all your calls, answers all your emails and is actually the one writing all the notes on scripts for the “weekend read.” She knows your work culture is toxic, too. While she’s meeting clients for you at “drinks” in the evenings when she’d rather be with her friends and family, she’s acutely aware that the company card-bought Appletini in her hand costs more than what she makes in one hour working for you. We know you told her it would only be a year or two tops before she’ll be promoted, but she’s so dependable as an assistant, we also know you don’t have any plans to do that.

Hollywood, we’ve been informed that if we want to work for you, we are supposed to believe that the metrics of last weekend’s box office and last night’s Nielsen ratings come before our own health and happiness. We add more roommates to cover our ever-increasing leases because we are supposed to believe in “paying dues” and “getting a foot in the door.” We all know that we’re expected to be grateful for the fabulous opportunity to work in Hollywood, and there are hundreds of others who are smarter than us and more accomplished than us who would jump at the chance for this unpaid internship, 16-hour-a-day production assistant job, or “no pay, but great exposure” freelance gig. Enough of us have been willing to sign your SAG minimum rate waivers and agree to give up intellectual property for one dollar options for so long, you’re probably convinced that you aren’t part of the problem; it is what it is.

The adage is true that this is a small town, and those of us who work here know the water cooler horror stories about toxic perpetrators, many who have been consistently abusing people in the workplace for years. We already know about the show runner who bullied people to the point of suicidal ideation, or the actor whose wild mood swings leaves her assistant to cry in the bathroom on a daily basis. The casting couch is a worn-out cliché for good reason. Harvey Weinstein had a reputation in the industry for 20 years before he was finally convicted of multiple sex crimes. Often, so many celebrities and studio executives get away with bad behavior because so much money and power at stake. If a “Hollywood Name” goes down, it often results in hundreds of regular people with regular bills suddenly out of work.

Which brings me to Ellen. Personally, I love the lighthearted feel of Ellen’s show, as do millions of other viewers. That doesn’t negate the allegations brought upon her by her staff. I have deep respect and appreciation for all she’s done in the space of LGBTQ rights. That doesn’t negate a call to action for better conditions.

Hollywood — and other workplaces, for that manner — you have an opportunity to meet this moment and make better choices. I have a proposition for you. Instead of trying to force non-toxic people to adapt to a toxic environment, why not seek to reduce or eliminate the factors that contribute to it? Usually that starts with offering the right support. There’s a lot you can do to support a calmer, safer more inclusive environment for every employee. Promote the quiet, hard-working assistant. Offer them leadership training. Give your employees mental health benefits and you will really see them thrive. Listen to employees when they are overworked and make adjustments. Stop making excuses for toxic people. Hire more women and people of color. I promise, not only will your workplace thrive, your bottom-line numbers will, too.

Hollywood, your power and potential for beauty is stunning. You infiltrate every screen in every country with your content. Because of this, you are the front line when it comes to real, positive, impactful, cultural change. Some of the most brilliant and talented people in the world are waiting to share their gifts with you, but we no longer will do it at the cost of risking our mental health.


Vicki Peterson

Image via ronpaulrevolt2008

Originally published: August 6, 2020
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