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Ellen DeGeneres wasn't fired for her show's toxic workplace. Bosses often get off easy.

The boss is the one who’s ultimately responsible for the environment that’s created — and yet rarely faces consequences.
Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, on May 24, 2016, in Burbank, Calif.
Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on May 24, 2016, in Burbank, Calif.Brooks Kraft / Getty Images file

Most of us don’t think of workplaces like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” as having anything in common with fast-food restaurants, big-box retailers or most any lower-profile setting. For starters, working on a TV show seems considerably more exciting and glamorous.

Whether it’s a toxic work environment at a personality-driven talk show or a major corporation with wage, workplace safety or sexual harassment problems, the people at the top set the tone.

But we recently learned that behind the “Be Kind” exterior that DeGeneres has cultivated, there was the kind of toxic atmosphere that employees of all kinds can sadly relate to. A BuzzFeed article based on interviews with 11 current and former employees on the show alleged that people experienced racist comments and termination after short leaves for health and family reasons, and were even questioned about time away from their desk for trips to the bathroom. Former staffers confirmed many allegations to NBC News but have not spoken out publicly because they fear retribution and had signed nondisclosure agreements, which prohibit sharing information about the program.

These circumstances are far from unique to Ellen’s show. Way too many people in a range of workplaces face discrimination, retaliation for taking leave, being penalized for “off task” time spent in the bathroom, and policies official and unofficial that silence workers. (Amazon reportedly has treated bathroom breaks as “time off task”; it now faces a coronavirus-related lawsuit for not giving employers adequate handwashing time, among other complaints.) Though there is no legal definition for workplace toxicity, we all know it when we see it — and experience for ourselves the infighting, bullying, unrealistic goals, fear-based management and sheer disrespect it entails.

Also not unique to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is the fact that the top dog was not the one punished. On Wednesday, it was announced that three of the show’s producers had been terminated after an internal investigation. As for the person the show is named after? She has pledged to exercise more oversight and committed herself to ensuring that the situation does not repeat itself.

We don’t know exactly how much of the show’s terrible environment was due personally to its star, of course. Ellen stated she was disappointed to learn about the atmosphere on the set, and wrote a letter to her staff, stating: “I’m glad the issues at our show were brought to my attention. I promise to do my part in continuing to push myself and everyone around me to learn and grow.”

But we do know that the head honcho is the one who’s ultimately responsible for the environment that’s created — and yet rarely faces consequences. It’s not surprising, of course, that Warner Bros., the studio behind Ellen’s program, decided to dismiss three producers rather than the celebrity around whom its entire show has been built. But whether it’s a toxic work environment at a personality-driven talk show or a major corporation with wage, workplace safety or sexual harassment problems, the people at the top set the tone.

News reports have attributed to Ellen a comment that she had allowed the show to be run like a machine rather than seeing the staff as people. In this, she made the same mistake as some other bigshot employers, like Andrew Puzder, former CEO of CKE Restaurants (the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.), whom President Donald Trump initially nominated for labor secretary but was then forced to withdraw under blowback. Puzder notoriously said that robots make better employees than people because they’re always on time, don’t take vacations and never sue the company. A century before him, Henry Ford reportedly said, “Why is it that I always get a whole person when all I want is a pair of hands?”

Those in the top positions of power have more ability than middle or even high-level managers to make sure people are treated well at work. It’s only the boss who can make it utterly clear that it is unacceptable to terminate people for taking leave, or monitor bathroom breaks, or otherwise treat people like machines. Bosses are the ones who can hire and reward managers who demonstrate respectful and humane behavior and establish supervisor performance metrics, like low employee turnover rates, that measure worker engagement and morale. Bosses can also create meaningful avenues for workers to share concerns when problems arise.

As it happens, it’s also good economic sense for an employer to treat workers well. A recent Oxford study found that happy workers are more productive. Zeynap Ton, an MIT professor, wrote a book profiling companies whose very success was based on their operational decision to invest in and value their workforce. Paul O’Neill, the former Treasury secretary and CEO of Alcoa, prominently emphasized workplace safety as a primary focus of his leadership, with impressive financial and human results.

Of course, it’s not just the bottom line that should make building positive work environments a job requirement for any executive. Indeed, leading a business that treats humans humanely should not be a grudging temporary tactic or window dressing but a baseline expectation — and a source of pride — for corporate leaders.

But since neither results nor decency are enough to make sure the person at the top of the org chart is held responsible for degrading working conditions, what more can be done? The most important structural change is to recalibrate the immense power imbalance in the workplace. In particular, the law should be altered to make it easier for people to organize unions, which give workers an institutional voice as well as protection against arbitrary firings, and can often be an important check against toxic cultures.

Also, individual liability can be an important tool for addressing and preventing legal infractions. Under some statutes, like the federal minimum wage law, a company owner or leader can be personally liable for violations if certain facts are present.

Other changes are also needed. For instance, since nondisclosure agreements prevent workplace problems from coming to light, their use should be severely restricted by law. And wildly proliferating forced arbitration agreements in employment contracts should be banned outright; they prevent workers from bringing cases in court, instead requiring disputes to be brought before secretive arbitrators and allowing problems to fester in the dark. (There are two proposals in Congress, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act and the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, that would accomplish this).

A legal requirement for corporations to have employee representatives on their boards (something Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has championed) would be another way to help ensure worker perspective and oversight at the very highest level. And strong anti-retaliation laws would make it easier for workers to speak out because they wouldn’t fear reprisals for doing so.

Apart from legal requirements, companies need to have a genuine commitment to and culture of not punishing workers who speak up or raise concerns; this approach also serves management well, as employee criticism allows problems to be identified and fixed.

What more can be done? The most important structural change is to recalibrate the immense power imbalance in the workplace.

We can only hope that things will get better at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and that it will be the exciting and glamorous kind of job for its staff that it looks like from the outside. DeGeneres reportedly said that she tries to learn from her mistakes and that she hopes she can transform the show into a happy place for workers.

Maybe DeGeneres will even be inspired to go beyond these measures. Wouldn’t it be amazing if she used her celebrity to talk with her counterparts — those at the top of the org chart in television and other industries — to help them transform their own companies into fairer and happier places, too? Workers everywhere — on TV shows, meatpacking plants, nursing homes and beyond — are also people and not machines. It’s important, as Ellen always says, to be kind. It’s also important to be just.