Essence Cleared of Toxic Workplace Accusations by Independent Reviews

Richelieu Dennis will continue as owner and chair of Essence and, the company says, work to improve the workplace culture is already underway

Independent investigations into accusations of a toxic work culture at Essence turned up nothing to support the claims, according to the company. Richelieu Dennis will continue in his role as owner and chair.

After the publication of a blog post in June, signed by “Black Female Anonymous,” Essence brought in law firms Proskauer Rose to investigate claims of sexual harassment and Morgan Lewis to investigate various other claims about the workplace culture. Interim CEO Caroline Wanga oversaw the process.

The June blog post came from a group of anonymous staffers and former staffers of Essence magazine who accused the publication and its leadership of “corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism, and classism” against the Black women who make up 80% of the magazine’s workforce. It called for Dennis to be removed.

In August, Essence released a summary of the Proskauer Rose investigation, which found the sexual harassment claims were “not substantiated.” Wednesday’s release focused on Morgan Lewis’ investigation, which lasted six weeks and relied on interviews with “current and former employees, freelancers, leaders, and contractors.” The summary released Wednesday also notes that Morgan Lewis reached out to the anonymous blog posters but got no response and that the company had already begun working to improve culture.

“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,'” according to documents from the investigation.

It also disputed that there was colorism or pay inequity within the company: “As to pay inequity, we did not receive any concrete examples of alleged pay inequity, and for the few employees who felt they were unfairly paid, we reviewed salary information and market data and we were not able to substantiate these claims.”

In a statement, Wanga said the company is now working to navigate through the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic that has decimated the media industry.

“With our forward strategy, Essence will accelerate the culture and infrastructure work we began two years ago on our journey to transform this 50-year old business into a more efficient and impactful one,” she said. “This includes an even deeper commitment to advancing our global mission of advocating for, investing in, elevating and celebrating Black women and communities via a supportive internal culture, strong external partnerships, compelling content, innovative experiences and purpose-driven resources. 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.”