Ellen’s little people problem

America loves a good “fall from grace” story. At the moment, The Ellen Show is serving up an excellent one.

Public accusations from staff have been nonstop.

Sexual harassment. Bullying. Out-of-control managers. Toxic work environment. It’s a smorgasbord of nasty.

If true, there are but two explanations. Either the real Ellen falls way short of her lovable public image, or she empowered her managers and failed to oversee them.

In other words, Ellen is either a bad person or a bad CEO.

I’m not exactly an insider. But I did spend two months working in Ellen’s world producing JCPenney’s $5 million, five-part Ellen campaign on the 2012 Oscars.

I didn’t see any of the behaviors now alleged. I absolutely did see an organization where producers had absolute power.

Ellen herself was mysteriously missing. She showed up to shoot her scenes, but left all decisions to her inner circle. Which was odd, given that our work would run on the second most-watched TV event of the year.

It was also in stark contrast to my previous experience with other celebrities, who typically love to engage and collaborate.

Given that past experience, the damning stories I now hear about Ellen ring true. More important, Ellen herself recognizes the same issue. At least she’s using it as a defense.

I’m […] learning that people who work with me and for me are speaking on my behalf and misrepresenting who I am and that has to stop.

Ellen’s email to staff, 7/31/2020

Obviously, Ellen’s challenges go beyond mere celebrity. She has a billion-dollar brand built upon a daily show with complex operational requirements. Of course she would delegate responsibilities, as any good leader would.

As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t.

Ellen’s email to staff, 7/31/2020

But delegating responsibility does not remove one from it. Values come from the top, and it was Ellen’s duty to ensure that her producers embraced those values.

When we began our Oscars production, we knew only of Ellen’s public image. We expected her to be funny, human and most of all, involved.

Instead we could only deal with Ellen’s inner circle, who operated with a mix of arrogance, control and exclusion.

The wall around Ellen was so “not normal,” even director Bryan Buckley—who’d loved working with Ellen on her terrific American Express campaign prior—said he’d never work with her again.

It was this betrayal of our expectations that made the experience more jolting—not unlike what many Ellen fans are feeling today.

Perhaps, if DeGeneres hadn’t presented an image of compassion and empathy, she might have never found herself on the receiving end of such a dramatic backlash; the broken illusion, the glimpse behind the curtain, might just be what is so upsetting to her fans. 

Forbes, 8/1/2020

Perhaps most damaging are the comments coming from credible sources—pointing to Ellen’s own behavior, beyond that of her producers.

Sorry but it comes from the top ⁦@TheEllenShow Know more than one who were treated horribly by her.⁩ Common knowledge.

Brad Garrett, HuffPost, 7/31/2020

Unfortunately for Ellen, all indications are that the network will be making official demands for reform.

WarnerMedia is conducting the investigation and previously said in a statement that it is “disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management.”

Fox News, 7/31/2020

So who takes the fall? The producers who didn’t do their job properly? Ellen, who didn’t do her job properly? Or nobody?

This is the kind of behavior that typically gets managers and CEOs fired.

However, we’re in celebrity-land here, where different rules often apply. Ellen has taken a serious hit, but never underestimate the power of a loyal following.

Here, I must cite the Steve Jobs theory of “the brand bank.”

Steve felt that every business keeps a balance in the brand bank. Do good and your balance goes up. Do bad and your balance goes down. A high balance earns love and loyalty, minimizing the negative effects of an unexpected crisis.

Does Ellen have a high enough balance in the brand bank?

She’s built up a lot of goodwill with fans and they’ll be willing to forgive her.

Eric Anderson, TV producer, Fox Business, 7/31/2020

Even if Ellen faces a rough road forward, tragic stories tend to have a silver lining. Maybe her crisis will remind us all—celebrities and mere mortals alike—of an important fact of life.

Every business is a people business. Results count, but human respect counts even more.