Inside Complex Networks, where some current and former employees said leadership fostered bullying and favoritism and shrugged off complaintsAugust 14, 2020
- Complex Networks is facing a reckoning after a number of current and former employees cited incidents they say are evidence of bullying and unfair treatment of employees and a dismissive response by the company.
- Business Insider spoke with 17 current and former employees who described Complex Networks as having a freewheeling culture that they claim favored some employees.
- Complex Networks has launched an investigation and hired an outside consultancy in light of the complaints and said improving its culture was a "major priority," though three employees who were interviewed as part of the investigation said that it's unclear to them how seriously the company is taking the allegations.
- "Improving our culture to foster better support and inclusivity for all of our employees is a major priority at Complex Networks," Complex said in a statement. "Recent events have emphasized how important it is we get this reinvention right, and that takes time."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In early 2018, Complex Networks held a town-hall meeting to address employee concerns about the hire of controversial radio personality, Troi Torain, known on air as Star, to host its hip-hop show "Everyday Struggle."
Some staffers were unhappy with the hire. Weeks earlier, Torain had publicly made sexually explicit comments about his future co-host Nadeska Alexis. Staffers and other people also discovered he'd made other sexist and threatening comments in the past.
But the response from leaders fell short to some. Leaders including SVP of content strategy Joe La Puma promised to better vet future hires. However, execs also said they weren't firing Torain. Management said they were respecting Alexis' wishes by doing so, according to an attendee.
Alexis later confronted Torain about the comment he had made to her directly on air, saying, "I just gotta ask: 'Why?'" He later apologized.
Several current and former employees at Complex said the incident provides evidence that leaders have been willing to put employees, particularly women and people of color, in uncomfortable situations and left them to defend themselves.
"Being a woman at Complex really did suck. To have to sit next to someone who made a comment like that, and be expected to suck it up and be okay," said one of the former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their work prospects.
As the media industry reckons with its record on race and gender, Complex, a digital media company focused on hip hop and sneakers that was acquired in 2016 by Verizon and Hearst, has been in the spotlight after former staffers spoke out about problems they said they experienced while working there.
In June, Tiffany Wines, a former social media editor for Complex's Pigeons and Planes brand focused on new music, publicly alleged "misogyny, anti-Blackness, favoritism" and other problems with the company culture. Other former female employees followed up with tweets about their own negative work experiences there.
Complex responded at the time with a statement, saying: "We are committed to a safe and supportive environment for all and we take the claims made over the weekend very seriously.
"We are immediately engaging an external law firm to conduct a third-party investigation and will address and solve this issue with urgency and appropriate consequences. The employees at the center of the recent complaints have been put on leave until the investigation is completed and we have appointed an interim head of HR while the investigation is underway."
Business Insider talked to 17 current and former staffers who worked at Complex at various periods from 2009 to 2020. They described Complex as having a freewheeling culture and claimed certain staffers were favored and others were bullied and marginalized while leadership dismissed or downplayed staffers' complaints, as in the Torain example.
Specifically, they said:
- Two former employees said they overheard longtime CEO Rich Antoniello shouting a derogatory term used for gay people from inside an open-door conference room in 2017.
- A pending lawsuit, filed in 2019, alleging pregnancy discrimination and a "culture of discrimination against, harassment of, and retaliation against women" who worked under Larry Menkes, who's risen up the sales ranks since 2013 and is now a VP of brand partnerships. In court filings, Complex and Menkes denied the discrimination allegations made against them.
- Kiana Fitzgerald, who was a staff writer at Complex from 2017 to 2019, said a rapper made sexist comments during an interview and that when she brought her concerns to editorial leaders, they laughed off the sexist comments.
- A current employee said Joe La Puma, who hosts the popular show "Sneaker Shopping," has poked fun at Complex employees on social media by sticking his phone's camera in front of them and filming them live without their permission.
- Former staffer Tiffany Wines said when she told HR about passing out after eating what she believes were drug-laced cookies that were left out in the office, her concerns were "swept under the rug."
- A current employee said that two department heads have referred in Slack to workplace culture concerns raised by ex-employees as an example of cancel culture.
- Several sources also previously told Business Insider that they believe Complex profited off of Black culture while "whitewashing" Complex's Black audience by replacing images of Black talent featured in Complex with white talent in pitches to advertisers.
Some of the current and former employees said that under recent hires like president Christian Baesler and chief revenue officer Edgar Hernandez, employees' concerns are being taken more seriously, and that the company has rolled out programs like career mapping to help staffers advance.
"When you're working with a young company that's growing fast, you don't necessarily take the time to do management training," said a former employee. "Complex is [now] willing to take a hard look at itself and make adjustments whereas a lot of companies are not."
Complex previously announced it had hired a consulting firm to "audit" its culture. It said in a statement to Business Insider August 12 that the findings of the audit would be available in two months and inform its path forward. It also said it introduced an anonymous third-party hotline for raising issues and a "a long-term diversity action plan for creating more opportunities for BIPOC."
"Improving our culture to foster better support and inclusivity for all of our employees is a major priority at Complex Networks," Complex said in the statement. "Recent events have emphasized how important it is we get this reinvention right, and that takes time."
Some said there was favoritism and bullying
The current and former employees said the culture stems from execs like Antoniello, who has been the CEO nearly since its inception in 2002, and a coterie of other longtime execs surrounding him who instilled what some called a "boy's club" atmosphere with "no adults in the room" looking out for employees' well-being.
"There is definitely an old league of mainly men who have a bizarre loyalty to the brand who think that they're being loyal and helpful to each other by not speaking out and protecting each other," said one former employee.
Antoniello is known in the industry as being loud and outspoken and among some employees for regularly using profanity around the office. Two former employees said they overheard him shouting a derogatory term used for gay people from inside an open-door conference room in 2017.
One former editorial executive described Antoniello's screaming "like he was Ari Gold — a lot of young people found that scary."
Another longtime leader is SVP La Puma, who hosts the popular show "Sneaker Shopping." The current employee said that La Puma has poked fun at Complex employees on social media by sticking his phone's camera in front of people who are junior to him and filming them live without their permission. The same current employee and one former employee said he has skipped mandatory meetings. Said that former employee, "he felt like he was exempt." La Puma hasn't responded to requests for comment.
"Being such a senior member of the staff, he instills a lot of the feeling of the culture in the office," said the current employee.
Complex has been accused of discrimination in two lawsuits. The first, which named Antoniello as a defendant, was settled in 2017. An open case, filed in 2019 and in which the plaintiff alleged pregnancy discrimination, also included allegations of a "culture of discrimination against, harassment of, and retaliation against women" who worked under Larry Menkes, who's risen up the sales ranks since 2013 and is now a VP of brand partnerships.
The complaint in the 2019 suit, filed by former account director Margrette Robinson, alleges there was a picture hung in the office that depicted a man wagging his finger at three crying female figures beneath the words "Larry scolding his daughters." The complaint alleged that the image depicted Menkes and his sales team and that the figures of the women were X-ed out when they left the company.
One former employee said "Larry's daughters" was a running joke on the sales side, as in "Larry's daughters are crying about something else again."
"It was a picture that really defined how women were treated in the office," Robinson said. "This was the atmosphere Larry created."
One other running joke in the office was the "Complex 15" or the "Complex curse," which referred to weight women would gain from the stress of working there.
Another former staffer said stress took a physical toll on her and other women she worked with there.
"I've never been more stressed in my life than I was at Complex," the source said.
Some said management was dismissive of complaints
Some people said that leaders didn't take workplace complaints seriously.
Kiana Fitzgerald, who wrote about music while a staff writer at Complex from 2017 to 2019, said a rapper made "sexist comments" during an interview with her and that his team "verbally abused" her when she tried to clarify his comments. She said when she brought her concerns to editorial leaders, they laughed off the rapper's comments.
In 2018, Complex brought in a head of HR, Jay Salim, to tighten up its practices. Salim introduced programs like a diversity committee and women's resource group and extended the company's paid leave maternity program. He also added perks like free snacks and revamped Complex's office with artwork and areas designed for employees and visitors to take Instagram pictures.
But the changes did not address ways for employees to report complaints and concerns, said a former employee. And his staff email before the 2019 winter holiday party began with a warning reminiscent of the safety briefings that military members notoriously get before leaving for special events but which struck some as tone-deaf: "I will leave you with my famous safety briefing. Drink, drive, sex, text: Never do two or more at the same time."
Salim declined to comment for this story.
Tiffany Wines said she blacked out on her way home from work in April 2019 after eating cookies left out in the office that she later believed to be drug-laced. She claims in her public statement that when she brought up the incident to Salim, he apologized and said the cookies were brought in by two visitors but wouldn't make an announcement about the incident to the rest of the company, as she asked.
"What happened to me was swept under the rug," she wrote in her statement.
Complex put Salim on leave after Wines called them out publicly in connection with the incident.
Complex is conducting a "cultural audit"
Complex said in June it hired a law firm, Greenberg Traurig, to investigate the claims made by Wines and others. It subsequently said it hired an consulting firm, United Minds, owned by PR firm Weber Shandwick, to conduct a "full cultural audit" in response to these and other recent events.
But some insiders question how committed management is to changing the culture as opposed to just trying to make complaints go away.
Complex has tried to tamp down on leaks by putting watermarks on materials distributed during town hall meetings.
And a few days after Wines and others tweeted their accusations about the company, two department heads expressed concerns in Slack that the recent claims were examples of cancel culture.
Three women who were interviewed as part of the law firm investigation expressed doubts about the whole process, based on the questions they were asked. Wines said she was asked whether she misunderstood social signals while working at Complex instead of being asked about her experiences. Another woman said an investigator implied to her that Wines should "let it go."
Asked for comment, Greenberg Traurig, the law firm conducting the investigation, sent the following statement Aug. 13: "Our client Complex Networks is an equal opportunity employer who takes all allegations of misconduct very seriously, including harassment and discrimination. Greenberg Traurig LLP has conducted interviews of more than 15 current and former employees and reviewed and analyzed relevant documents from a number of sources as part of its thorough and diligent independent investigation of Ms. (Williams) Wines' complaint. Greenberg Traurig and Complex Networks cannot comment on a confidential ongoing investigation of private employee matters. As an employer who has zero-tolerance for discrimination or harassment, Complex Networks will take prompt remedial steps to address any evidence of misconduct or violations of company policies and procedures."
Said Wines: "It's very disappointing — there isn't anything to share, which makes me think the company is waiting for this to go away."
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