Essence Magazine Responds to Anonymous Letter Decrying ‘Toxic’ Workplace

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Essence issued a statement Monday in response to accusations made by its mostly Black female staff of a “toxic culture” at the magazine.

A Medium blog post published Sunday by a group of current and former staffers calling themselves “Black Female Anonymous” alleges that Black women are “systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism” at Essence.

“The company’s longstanding pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business,” the post claims.

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Essence, which covers fashion, beauty, entertainment and culture targeting Black women, launched in 1970. The blog post says “the Essence brand promise is fraudulent,” and links to a petition demanding the company’s senior management team step down.

“We demand the immediate resignation of Essence Ventures owner and Chief Executive Officer Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu,” the post says.

The magazine’s workforce is made up of 80 percent Black women, the post says. It notes that the authors chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

“New owner and CEO Richelieu Dennis, Michelle Ebanks, Joy Collins Profet and Moana Luu collaboratively immortalize an extremely unhealthy work culture,” it says. “Scores of talented Black women have been either wrongfully laid off or forced to resign from the company in the past two years. Essence’s C-suite leadership team strategically tells the market it ‘serves Black women deeply’ under the safe seal of 100% Black ownership, but for the Black women who makeup over 80% of the company’s workforce, they are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism.”

It goes on to allege that since the acquisition of Essence in 2018 from Time Inc., Dennis — who is Black — has allegedly preyed on female employees.

“For the women who don’t seemingly consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events,” the letter alleges.

In its response Monday, Essence called the claims “unfounded” and “heartbreaking.”

“Candidly, the last 24 hours have been heartbreaking. At Essence, we uplift the voices of, provide platforms for, and generate opportunities that elevate Black women and communities and have done so for 50 years,” the statement began. “It is the work we have committed ourselves to every single day since we were founded in 1970 and that has been accelerated over our past two years as a 100% Black family-owned company creating opportunities for Black creatives and leaders in an industry that has failed them.”

The response, posted on the Essence website, adds: “It is extremely important to us that we foster a safe, transparent and respectful workspace for everyone and that we expect that from everyone.”

It goes on to dispute the claims made in the post.

“Still, anonymity does not negate accountability. Facts will always matter, and we are not afraid of the truth. The allegations and mischaracterizations throughout – whether of pay inequity, intimidation, and otherwise – are unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character,” the statement continued. “Further, accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct are extremely serious matters, and we fully understand the gravity of the implications. As such, these are also not claims to be recklessly and untruthfully thrown about – particularly when there have been no claims to respond to or any evidence of such defamatory accusations. In fact, there have been multiple comprehensive reviews of the HR function, and no evidence has been found to substantiate these anonymous claims. We have and will continue to review any legitimate claims of any nature that come to our attention.”