Being asked to join the control room inside The Ellen DeGeneres Show is a coveted spot in Hollywood, but according to dozens of men and women who work behind the scenes, the office is a place where sexual harassment and misconduct by top executive producers runs rampant.
One ex-employee said head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman asked him if he could give him a hand job or perform oral sex in a bathroom at a company party in 2013. Another said they separately saw Leman grab a production assistant’s penis.
In May 2017, another former employee also said she saw Leman grope a production assistant in a car and kiss his neck.
Nearly a dozen former employees, who range from longtime, senior-level employees to production assistants, said it was also common for Leman to make sexually explicit comments in the office, like pointing out male colleagues’ bulges in their crotches, or ask them questions like, “Are you a top or a bottom?”
“It’s masked in sarcasm, but it’s not sarcasm,” a former employee said.
Many of his targets, employees added, were lower-level and younger employees who felt they lacked any power to speak up.
“He’d probably do it in front of 10 people and they’d laugh because ‘it’s just Kevin being Kevin,’ but if you’re in a position of power at a company, you don’t just get to touch me like that,” a former employee said.
In a statement after this article published, Leman said he categorically denied “any kind of sexual impropriety.”
“I started at the Ellen Show as a PA more than 17 years ago and have devoted my career to work my way to the position I now hold. While my job as head writer is to come up with jokes — and, during that process, we can occasionally push the envelope — I’m horrified that some of my attempts at humor may have caused offense,” he said. “I have always aimed to treat everyone on the staff with kindness, inclusivity and respect. In my whole time on the show, to my knowledge, I’ve never had a single HR or inter-personal complaint made about me, and I am devastated beyond belief that this kind of malicious and misleading article could be published.”
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BuzzFeed News spoke to 36 former employees, many of whom independently corroborated incidents of harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault from top producers like Leman. All of the ex-employees, many of whom had voluntarily left the show, asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
Warner Bros. declined to comment on specific allegations, citing an ongoing internal investigation that was launched after an earlier BuzzFeed News report in which current and former employees said they faced racism, fear, and intimidation at work.
But in a statement on Thursday, the studio said it “hoped to determine the validity and extent of publicly reported allegations and to understand the full breadth of the show’s day-to-day culture.”
“It was important to both Warner Bros. and Ellen that as many people as possible attached to the program could be heard,” Warner Bros. added. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show is, and has always strived to be, a place that brings positivity to the world. And though not all of the allegations were corroborated, we are disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management.
“We have identified several staffing changes, along with appropriate measures to address the issues that have been raised, and are taking the first steps to implement them.”
In a letter to staff that was obtained by BuzzFeed News, DeGeneres on Thursday apologized, saying that from its inception, the show was supposed to be a place of “happiness” where “everyone would be treated with respect.”
“Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show,” she wrote.
Among the many allegations brought to BuzzFeed News, five former employees said executive producer Ed Glavin touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable by rubbing their shoulders and back, as well as placing his hand around their lower waist.
Dozens of former employees also said Glavin “had a reputation for being handsy with women,” especially in the control room, and managed the team through fear and intimidation.
“You could definitely see the creep factor and the creepy touching. That was out in the open for everybody to see,” one former employee, who said Glavin regularly touched her in the control room, told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously, no one wants that and no one wants to be uncomfortably touched by someone … but you didn’t want to piss them off or you would be fired, so it was just that culture of fear.”
Another former employee said Glavin would call over producers and assistants to sit near him when the show was filming segments they had worked on and, in front of nearly 30 other people in the control room, would touch them inappropriately.
“Even though I was being abused [at work] constantly, Ed putting his arm around you in the control room was like the nicest experience you had all day, as messed up as that sounds,” she said. “But you had been crying last night and now your segment is going well … and then you feel like you got credit for something from the executive producer directly. … That friendly banter accompanied by a friendly hand.”
Glavin did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the allegations.
In all, 47 former employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said Glavin led with intimidation and fear on a daily basis. One former employee said when they turned in their notice, Glavin flipped over a table and chair while screaming.
Five former employees also said they saw Glavin use a button at his desk to remotely shut his office door “as an intimidation tactic” during reprimands.
“It seemed like a power move, more than anything,” one former employee said.
Ex-workers also said they were uncomfortable when Glavin used his private shower in his office bathroom.
“You’d be going into his office for an important meeting and the shower door is open and you’re like, that’s a little weird,” a former employee said. “The shower is right when you walk in on the right. Before you even see his desk, you see his shower. He’d be openly showering and going into meetings with wet hair.”
Another former employee said co-executive producer Jonathan Norman groomed him over a period of time by taking him to concerts and other work-related perks, and then one night attempted to perform oral sex on him. Three of the employee’s former colleagues on the show corroborated that he told them about the incident at the time and said they have discussed it in the years since.
“We’re young people who were forming our careers and were unfortunately subjected to a toxic work environment as some of our first jobs out of college,” the former employee said. “And some of us were sexually harassed and that’s what was shaping our careers our first year out of school.”
In a statement after publication Thursday night, Norman said he is “100% categorically denying these allegations.”
“I have never had a single complaint against me in my career. I have never ‘groomed’ anyone,” he said. “I have never done anything to harm another staff member. Ever. The person I believe you are referring to has ulterior motives for bringing down the show and has been acting with malice towards the show.”
Adding to the void of accountability, former employees said there was no formal process to confidentially file complaints, and that senior-level producers pressured them not to go to HR at the show’s parent company.
“There was no such thing as a confidential conversation,” a former employee said. “There was no clear direction that if something happens to you, you go to this person, it will remain confidential, and you will not be retaliated against.”
A former Warner Brothers employee who worked with The Ellen Show said the company “turns a blind eye” to the alleged misconduct because the series “is a cash cow.”
“Warner Brothers has a responsibility not just to the people who work on The Ellen Show, but to its viewers and its shareholders to make sure people are protected on the job, and that they’re not harassed, and they’re not working in an environment that is toxic and unhealthy,” the former employee said.
Some former workers said they don’t think DeGeneres is aware of the scope of what goes on behind the scenes because she doesn’t spend enough time in the office or interacting with the staff to have a strong sense of the culture. They also said executive producers “insulate” her from details and control the narrative on set.
“Everyone acted really differently around her,” one former employee said. “There’s a show that’s happening behind the show, the show that the executive producers have us all put on for her when she comes to the offices.”
In her letter to staff on Thursday, DeGeneres said she had come to rely on others to stay on top of the daily operation, but added: “My name is on the show and everything we do and I take responsibility for that.”
“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,” she added. “That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”
But other former employees told BuzzFeed News it’s implausible that DeGeneres hasn’t been exposed to the same stories and behavior, particularly when they allegedly involve the senior-level executive producers she spends most of her time with.
“For someone who’s so involved in the show and the creative aspect, and having been in those meetings with her, it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that she doesn’t hear the same whispers,” one former employee who worked closely with DeGeneres said. “Unless she really is just in this bubble.”
Another longtime former employee who also worked with DeGeneres said the talk show host “doesn’t want to know” about what goes on behind the scenes, and “nobody wants to rock the boat” because she is essentially the show’s brand.
“She knows,” the former employee said. “She knows shit goes on, but also she doesn’t want to hear it.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.