The saga that began with a bold public plea to #TakeBackEssence seemed one step closer to ending as of Tuesday, as Essence released the results of yet another independent legal review, this time conducted by the law firm Morgan Lewis. The firm’s report appeared to quash claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, and toxic work culture made on June 28 by #BlackFemaleAnonymous (BFA), a group claiming to be comprised of former and current employees, against the legacy imprint’s owner since 2018, Shea Moisture co-founder Richelieu Dennis, as well as several members of c-suite leadership.
In a statement attributed to the staff of Essence, the company reported “no findings of discrimination or harassment” by Morgan Lewis. This, after what was reportedly a six-week investigation led and managed by partners Grace E. Speights and Jocelyn R. Cuttino and overseen by Essence’s Interim CEO, Caroline Wanga, in response to allegations made by BFA in an open letter on Medium titled “The Truth About Essence.” Explaining the process, Essence stated:
“Morgan Lewis conducted interviews with current and former ESSENCE employees, freelancers, leaders, and contractors about their experiences at the company and any information relevant to the investigation, while maintaining confidentiality with respect to their identities.”
The review was the second third-party investigation conducted at Essence since BFA’s allegations went public. The first, conducted by Proskauer Rose, found claims of sexual harassment and misconduct leveled against Dennis were unsubstantiated, and, in some cases, contradicted by 17 anonymous current and former employees. Morgan Lewis’ investigation focused on workplace culture—specifically, claims of nepotism, bullying, and misconduct at the 50-year-old imprint.
Via Essence’s statement on the findings:
“After a thorough review of the documents and information collected in our interviews, our investigation did not substantiate BFA’s claims that Mr. Dennis bought the silence of employees, appointed his wife to head HR in order to curb employee complaints, or tried to force employees to sign NDAs after a string of layoffs and ‘potentially libelous business activity,’” Morgan Lewis maintained, refuting reports that Dennis’ wife oversaw Human Resources at Essence Ventures, a clear conflict of interest in the eyes of concerned employees. Furthermore, in direct contradiction to several anonymous sources interviewed by The Glow Up amid the initial allegations, upon reviewing Essence’s NDA the investigators found it limited, stating that it “does not restrict employees from making complaints or claims of any kind.”
“In fact, ‘no witness revealed any instance of feeling silenced directly or indirectly by Mr. Dennis;’ there was ‘no evidence to suggest that Ms. Dennis was appointed to lead HR or that she ever led HR,” the statement continued, adding that “evidence revealed that Ms. Dennis assisted with HR matters on an interim basis during the transition of Essence’s HR resources and that there were HR resources available who are not related to Mr. Dennis.”
“I appreciate that these independent reviews clear my name, though the most important focus for me is the future of Essence,” Mr. Dennis said in a statement obtained by the New York Times. “The reason I insisted that two of the most respected firms conduct reviews in response to anonymous allegations is that I wanted to make this a moment to accelerate the transformation of this iconic and important 50-year-old enterprise.”
In regard to specific complaints of toxic work culture allegedly perpetuated by current board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, including discrimination based on maternity, Morgan Lewis stated:
“We did not find any evidence to support the assertions that Ms. Ebanks bullied employees, laid off employees based on maternity leave, or overlooked qualified Black candidates for promotion,” and “did not receive any examples of conduct that might be considered bullying.” The report further sought to clarify that Ebanks had, in fact, promoted “at least two employees” during their maternity leave, and while one employee’s “position was eliminated following maternity leave,” the position “was going to be eliminated regardless of the employee’s leave.” Similarly, findings in regard to former Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, who had given her resignation notice months ahead of the allegations made by BFA, seemed to indicate no wrongdoing in her reportedly brief handling of HR functions, after which she “hired dedicated HR professionals,” the report states.
Somewhat less favorable were Morgan Lewis’ findings in regard to Chief Content and Creative Officer MoAna Luu. “[A]damant that it is not her intent to bully anyone,” Luu was absolved of allegedly having engaged in preferential or discriminatory treatment “based on any protected category or [having] retaliated against anyone for engaging in legally protected activities.” However, the investigation found that “several witnesses reported hearing her make insensitive comments,” and “some employees working under her feel her management style is intimidating and brash.” (The latter of which we must acknowledge is a complaint frequently leveled against Black women in the workplace, albeit not typically by predominantly female employees of the same race.) Significantly, in reference to an alleged personal relationship between Luu and Dennis, Morgan Lewis stated: “there is no evidence that they had a personal relationship or that they even knew each other before Ms. Luu joined Essence.”
The statement, which can be read in full on Essence’s site, went on to refute claims of pay inequity, colorism and classism, and reported that Morgan Lewis “did not find any evidence of conduct that would amount to unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.” What the law firm did find was “a widely shared sentiment that employees feel overworked and unappreciated,” but stated: “Many of the issues that employees feel contribute to the work culture existed under Time Inc.’s ownership, before Essence was acquired.” (Here, it should be noted that former Time Inc. exec Ebanks’ tenure as CEO of Essence Communications also predated the acquisition.)
In terms of how these persistent issues might be resolved, “Essence had already begun to take these steps by hiring Ms. Wanga before the allegations were raised, and commissioning a workplace culture review by a third-party consulting firm, Center for Workforce Excellence, and updated company policies,” the magazine reported.
That third independent review by the Center for Workforce Excellence reportedly consisted of listening sessions with over 60 percent of current Essence employees. According to the company: “The assessment and subsequent recommendations from the Center for Workforce Excellence focused on organizational culture, leadership and accountability; belonging and respect; and performance management and career advancement and will be incorporated in the path forward for Essence, including the creation of a coaching structure, establishment of reward and recognition systems and implementation of processes that build accountability at every level.”
But what of BFA’s demands that Dennis and Ebanks step down from operational roles at Essence? Following The Glow Up’s initial coverage of BFA’s allegations, Essence directly contacted us to clarify that Dennis was not and had never been CEO of Essence Communications. On Tuesday, the magazine stated that: “Moving forward, Dennis will continue in his capacity as owner and chair of Essence, guiding the vision for the company’s growth and supporting the executive team and Wanga—who will continue in the Interim CEO role for the immediate future —in their transformation efforts. Ebanks shall remain on the Essence Ventures board and provide guidance based on her years of experience and historical knowledge of the legacy Essence brand.”
“From the outset of these anonymous claims, Essence has maintained our commitment to an independent process and transparency,” Wanga said. “We are grateful that the review process has concluded, and that as a result, there are independent investigation findings to provide facts and clarity regarding false and egregious allegations, as well as specific recommendations to help guide us to improve workplace culture.
“With the conclusion of the reviews, we are now fully focused on renewed efforts to successfully drive the organization forward as we also navigate and address the unforeseeable and mounting losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of this time,” Wanga continued, acknowledging the business losses that have affected the legacy imprint amid unprecedented external and internal pressures, and reaffirming the company’s commitment to elevating and advancing Black women.
“It will not be easy, but we carry forward the resiliency that has always sustained this brand and our community, and together, in purpose and service, we will continue to rise,” she concluded.
To date, #BlackFemaleAnonymous has issued no further public acknowledgment or statement on these matters or the resulting investigations since July 14, via Twitter. Both Proskauer Rose and Morgan Lewis reported reaching out to the group, as has The Glow Up; despite several attempts, we have yet to receive a response. We will update this story as needed.