Ellen DeGeneres Is the New-Era Example Business Leaders Can Learn From
In a report in Buzzfeed over the summer, several employees of The Ellen DeGeneres Show alleged that they had faced harassment, intimidation and racism while on set, sparking an internal investigation. News of a toxic backstage culture stood in stark contrast to the environment DeGeneres had promised to create and her reputation as an advocate for inclusivity and decency.
After the Buzzfeed article came out, the comedian and host sent an internal memo to staff rededicating herself to overseeing a workplace in which “everyone would be treated with respect.” Still, most onlookers wondered: How had she been so neglectful of her own mantra to “be kind”?
On Monday, DeGeneres responded boldly by kicking off the show’s 18th season with a public apology that both sought forgiveness and took ownership of any wrongdoing and dysfunction. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” she began. “I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people that were affected.”
DeGenere’s fortrightness and accountability should serve as a model for finding the right way forward out of controversy and unrest. It takes great emotional intelligence for a leader to determine that their workplace is not enabling people and innovation to thrive. In this case, DeGeneres demonstrated flexibility and openness to change, a keen sense of reality testing to the situation in front of her and, in her remorse, an insight into how the cirumstances were hurting her crew and her brand.
This kind of public-facing statement is a testament to a leader wanting to change; putting a stake in the ground to show her team that she is committed to good intentions. With new behaviors and expectations codified, the rest of the team will now rise to that standard. This will require the entire team watch out for each other so they and DeGeneres herself can feel psychologically safe.
In the bigger picture, DeGeneres’s apology comes at a time when everyone is starting a new chapter. This includes companies such as Riot and Ubisoft, where for years there was a reality gap or optimism bias clouding what was truly happening within their organizations. Her show’s reset also dovetails with how working-from-home practices have leveled the playing field globally, and at a time when marginalized and under-represented communities are demanding equity.
In this new era, leaders must create radically emotionally intelligent workplaces — ones where people are valued over products, the planet is valued over profit and stakeholders and teammates are united behind a mission to positively impact the world. For DeGeneres, her sincere and very public apology was a great place to start.