The Essence Investigation: “The report was not all sunshine, however. Investigators noted ‘a widely shared sentiment that employees feel overworked and unappreciated.’”

From a New York Times story by Adenike Olanrewaju headlined “Investigation at Essence Finds No Evidence of Abusive Work Culture”:

Investigations by two law firms have determined that the leaders of Essence Communications, including its owner, Richelieu Dennis, did not engage in behavior that contributed to a toxic workplace.

Essence commissioned the investigations in July after an anonymous essay published on Medium accused executives at the groundbreaking Black media brand that includes Essence magazine of creating an “abusive work culture” in which bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment were common.

The essay, “The Truth About Essence,” was signed by Black Female Anonymous, which presented itself as a group of Essence employees. It said Black women at the company were “systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism,” and it demanded the resignations of Mr. Dennis and other leaders. Black Female Anonymous also collected more than 4,500 signatures on a Change.org petition asking for the resignations.

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius conducted a review of the workplace issues raised in the Medium post. Proskauer Rose investigated allegations of sexual harassment made in the essay against Mr. Dennis, the owner and chairman of Essence Ventures, the parent company of the magazine and Essence Communications.

The company shared the firms’ reports with The New York Times and said neither firm had “prior or current relationships with the company, outside of the independent investigations.”. . .

Proskauer Rose added that its investigators had not heard from anyone affiliated with the Black Female Anonymous essay after reaching out to the group through its Instagram account and asking Essence employees to contact the investigators by email. . . .

Shortly after the June 28 publication of the Black Female Anonymous essay, Mr. Dennis stepped away from his daily leadership role at the company. Caroline A. Wanga, a former Target executive who was serving as Essence’s chief growth officer, was named interim chief executive, a role she still holds, the company said.

Ms. Wanga said in a statement that the company had handled the allegations appropriately.

“When faced with anonymous allegations, unlike leaders who would have tried to keep it as private as possible out of concern it would diminish the company, Richelieu boldly called for a full review of all allegations, because he knows that the cultural investment made in this iconic brand would transcend the untruths being spread in an attempt to diminish it and his leadership,” she said.

Essence magazine, the pre-eminent lifestyle publication for Black women, celebrated its 50th anniversary with its May issue, which featured the model Naomi Campbell on the cover. The magazine has a circulation of more than one million, and its website attracts nearly seven million visitors each month. . . .

The report from Morgan Lewis was not all sunshine, however. Investigators noted “a widely shared sentiment that employees feel overworked and unappreciated.”

“Several witnesses stated that they feel pressured to work incredibly hard without recognition or reward and there are no boundaries or work-life balance,” the report said. “According to a number of employees, much of this work is generated by poor planning and a lack of communication from certain members of management. Based on our interviews, there also is a lack of transparency with respect to pay and promotions.”

A senior staff member at Essence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said parts of the Black Female Anonymous essay rang true. “A lot of the problems in the letter I have seen: the inefficiencies, the belittlement, the lack of transparency within management,” the staff member said. “You could feel the toxicity.”

Mr. Dennis said in his statement that he was working to improve: “We’ve made major improvements over the past two years, and there’s still work to be done. Now that these reviews are behind us, I look forward to making Essence the best it can be.”

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