At tech publisher Digital Trends, staffers see a ‘white bro culture’

On Wednesday, June 10, the entire Digital Trends staff — approximately 130 people — spent three hours in a virtual town hall meeting. The company’s executive staff spent the bulk of that time fielding numerous questions and concerns from staffers, regarding the claims of a discriminatory workplace culture that past and current employees were airing on Twitter over the past two weeks.

The tweet that had kicked off all of the online allegations was a resurfaced photo of DT’s chief operating officer Chris Carlson dressed up as a Black racial stereotype during a company-wide “Gin and Juice”-themed party back in July 2018.

The tweet was in response to the company posting on social media its support of the Black Lives Matter movement and later being called out by former and current employees that the company did not internally work to end discrimination in the workplace.

Tech publisher Digital Trends is a rare media success story. A bootstrapped, privately owned company, DT is profitable at a time where many media companies of all sizes are feeling compressed and are grasping at new revenue diversification opportunities.

Like many media companies, from Condé Nast to Refinery29, Digital Trends is facing up to shortcomings when it comes to diversity and inclusion. According to CEO Ian Bell, approximately 90 of its employees — 70% — can be categorized as white or male.

“We care deeply about everybody and we want to make Digital Trends a safe place for everybody to work,” Bell said in an interview. “These [accusations] are just now coming to the surface. We need to do a better job listening, understanding and then work on adapting and changing.”

Across the media industry, rank-and-file employees are speaking up against their employers not doing enough to ensure people of all persuasions are welcomed and treated fairly. Sixteen former and current Digital Trends staffers dating all the way back to 2012 shared with Digiday instances of what they classify as racism, sexism, sexual harassment and homophobia at Digital Trends. Seven spoke on the record; others recounted their experiences on background.

During the town hall — which a spokesperson for the company said was a forum for employees to vent and let management know how they’re feeling about these claims — it was announced that Carlson would keep his job.

Bell said in an interview with Digiday that it was the responsibility of the company to “make better human beings” through education and training.

“When you look at the industry and you see people being fired for incidences like we dealt with, we have to keep in mind that these individuals are going to go to a new company and they’re going to take their naivety and increased hate to those companies as well,” Bell said.

On Thursday, June 11, Digital Trends’ executive team released a public apology and commitment to change.

The statement, which was signed by the company founders Bell and Dan Gaul, read: “We are deeply and truly sorry for publicly supporting inclusive change when we had not done nearly enough to foster it inside of our walls … for dimming and failing critical voices including women and people of color among our staff; for perpetuating ‘bro culture.'”

Even during the town hall, anonymous questions and comments to the execs rubbed many the wrong way for being, at best, tone deaf.

Screenshots of the chat were shared with Digiday: 

The company’s newly hired head of people, Diana Semler, said that her team is unable to identify the comments, but comments of this type will not be allowed and the appropriate behavior for company-wide meetings will be shared with the staff for future meetings.

“The company is continuing to be a monument for discrimination,” said a person of color currently employed at Digital Trends who was upset by the announcement that Carlson would once again keep his job. “They basically let everyone know that they’re going to put [our] professional reputations at risk.”

“Might as well have been in blackface”

On July 26, 2018, the company hosted a “gin and juice”-themed party in its Portland headquarters.

The party — which was thrown in celebration of reaching a quarterly goal of 23 million unique visitors to the site — took place just over two weeks after about 10 staffers were laid off and already left a bad taste in employees mouths because they weren’t given reasons for the layoffs other than restructuring. But Carlson’s costume did not go over well with several staffers, leaving many upset.

“He might as well have been in blackface,” said a person of color employed at DT who was present at the party and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The employee described how Carlson held up what appeared as imitations of gang signs.

Following the party, two staffers at the time said they filed complaints to HR. Both said that if any action was taken to discipline the COO, they were unaware of it. Bell said that Carlson was reprimanded by HR and received a suspension from the office.

Bell also said that the people involved in organizing the party immediately attended diversity, equality and inclusion training and the rest of the company subsequently received that training about nine months later.

One staffer said that Carlson never outwardly apologized until the company-wide town hall meeting on June 10 — two years later. Carlson declined a request for an interview. An email was sent from Bell and Gaul on July 27, 2018 apologizing for the incident, but it did not include an apology from Carlson.

In the course of reporting this story, Bell answered questions on the record, but then Digital Trends referred questions to Jayson Frydman, a U.K.-based attorney. Frydman said Carlson issued an apology at a company meeting on August 28, 2018. Five staffers at the time who said they remember the meeting, do not recall an apology made by Chris at the time. What’s more, two of them who started at the company after the party but before the meeting said that they did not learn about the “Gin and Juice” party until months after the fact.

Bell said that he was not in attendance and was unaware of the party’s theme prior to it taking place.

A current staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “What it boils down to is Chris Carlson’s wellbeing and his consciousness is worth more than your entire staff [being comfortable] at work.”

Systematic issues that started a decade ago

Ex-staffers described a daily environment charged with what they felt were racist and overtly sexual comments. Three of the company’s current and former staffers told Digiday they sought therapy or are currently seeking help.

In 2010 a lawsuit was filed by a former female employee who listed several instance of sexual harassment in the workplace. The case was settled out of court for $37,500.

A segment from the deposition for the 2010 case Phillips v DesignTechnica Corporation

“Ten years ago, we were seven employees at the time. I denied the allegations back then. I deny them now. I’ve grown a lot as a leader in the last 10 years and of course I am an advocate against sexual harassment in the workplace. In fact, we haven’t had any lawsuits around sexual harassment since then,” Bell said.  

According to accounts from present staffers, however, sexual harassment still is occurring at Digital Trends, which Bell confirmed during a conversation with Digiday regarding one staff writer that was fired after inappropriate behavior at a holiday party three years ago.

On November 30, 2017, Brie Barbee was a new staff writer at Digital Trends, having just joined the company two week earlier. She attended her first company holiday party, held at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon, where Digital Trends has headquarters. She was getting to know her new coworkers over food, drinks and conversation. That night, she was approached by one male staff writer who sat at the desk next to her and he told her that he was the reason she was hired at the company. 

Barbee knew that was not the case as he was not at all involved in her interview process, but he added that “the least I could do was fuck him,” she wrote in a Twitter thread recounting the incident last week. 

Brenda Stoylar, another staff writer who joined the company’s New York City office in May 2017, said she met that same male staff writer for the first time that night. While introducing himself, she said he was “basically appalled that I didn’t know who he was” because he claimed he drove the most traffic to the site. 

He then proceeded to follow her around the party for the rest of the night, after not getting the attention he desired from her, Stoylar said, and repeatedly brought up the fact that he could not believe she was a writer for Digital Trends. Eventually she said she confronted him, saying that she did, in fact, write for the site and that she landed this job with her degree from Rutgers University.

At that point he became enraged, she said. “He turned to me and said something along the lines of ‘you think you have a right to come in here wearing something like that? showing off your curves and everything???’ in this disgusting sexual manner with his weird fucking eyes staring me up and down,” Stoylar recounted on Twitter. 

Stolyar did not report the incident to her superiors or to human resources, despite being appalled by being spoken to that way, but Barbee, who saw this male staffer on a regular basis in the office, ended up reporting him to HR the next day. By the next week, that staff writer had been fired. 

Barbee was instructed by HR — in an email shared with Digiday — to keep quiet about the specifics of the case and to not let anyone know why that staffer was fired.

Image description –
Email from HR that was sent to Barbee telling her the matter had to remain confidential.

“In the weeks following I had to listen to many of my coworkers say they felt sorry for the guy who got fired and that he didn’t deserve it, which did not make me feel welcome there,” Barbee wrote in an email to Digiday. 

“The level of transparency that people are asking for is not possible because of privacy” rules when it comes to firing an employee, Bell said.

According to former Digital Trends section editor Rick Stella, one such comment came from Bell, himself in an elevator ride in January or February 2018. Stella said that shortly after the staff writer was fired, Bell told him it was a shame that man had to leave the company because he drove a lot of traffic for the site.

Bell denies saying this and denies ever being in an elevator with Stella. 

A toxic company culture

Several current and former staffers used the word “toxic” when describing the company’s office culture. Nearly a dozen ex-staffers cited that the reason they ended up leaving the company was because they either experienced mistreatment they attributed to their race, gender or sexuality — or they witnessed such behavior. 

Barbee she said that the holiday party in 2017 wasn’t the only time that she faced sexual harassment in the office. After work hours one day, a freelancer, who had been drinking several beers in the lunchroom area, told Barbee at least five or six times that he “really liked my shirt” while staring at her breasts, she said. Another coworker saw this happen and intervened and then reported it to the coworker’s manager. That man kept his job but was mainly remote following that instance.

Bell’s attorney said that swift action was taken once the company learned about this freelancer’s actions and he was told not to come into the office.

Corey Gaskin, the former mobile editor, said in March he objected to a video on DT’s social channels about how to wash your hands that featured stock footage of only Asian people. The video has since been taken down.

“I was admonished by our editor-in-chief, who sought to take disciplinary action against me for calling the post racist in our Slack channel,” he said. “I left DT the first week of shelter in place. It was that bad, in a pandemic, with no other opportunities lined up.”

Bell’s attorney said that Bell took the concerns raised by Gaskin into consideration and immediately took down the video. Gaskin was not admonished for raising those concerns, according to the attorney, but rather was “counseled” on the “method and tone” of how he called out the racist nature of the video in a company-wide manner, which is a breach of company policy.

A former employee in the New York office said she has a diagnosed mental illness, which is protected by the Equal Opportunity and ADA Laws, and would, from time to time, post about it on her Twitter account to combat stigma. At one point while her Twitter account was private, her colleagues printed out those tweets and passed them around in the office. The staffer, who asked not to be named, said she felt it was a way to “ridicule me and suggest that I’m violent,” she said, which is illegal according to those laws.

The company’s attorney said that an investigation was put in place “promptly” after the employee’s complaint was filed to HR and added that actions were being taken to address the issue, however the employee left the company prior to any resolution.

One staffer that spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “Personally, if there isn’t a shakeup to the management team—the exec team in particular—I will leave. I don’t know the exact time frame because it’s tough right now with the pandemic, but I have a foot out the door.”

Bell disputes many characterizations of former employees but does allow that the company clearly has work to be done.

“This is an interesting time in history, and we should all be listening and learning right now. I am excited to get to work on creating positive change in our organization. It’s unfortunate that this is what it took to accelerate that change. Lesson learned.”

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