NFL ANNOUNCES OUTCOME OF WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM WORKPLACE REVIEW BY SPORTS LAWYER
The National Football League announced yesterday the outcome of the workplace review of the Washington Football Team led by independent counsel Beth Wilkinson, as well as remedial measures and penalties arising out of that review, according to an NFL press release.
Wilkinson’s firm (“Wilkinson”) was initially engaged by the Washington club in July 2020. At the club’s request, the league office assumed oversight of her work a short time later, just prior to the start of the 2020 season. Her assignment was to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace culture at the club, including allegations of bullying and harassment, and to make recommendations regarding any remedial measures the club should take in light of her findings. Wilkinson was not specifically tasked with confirming or rejecting any particular allegation of inappropriate conduct. Throughout her engagement, Wilkinson communicated with the league office on a regular and ongoing basis.
Wilkinson interviewed more than 150 people, most of whom were current or former employees of the club, and many of whom conditioned their participation on a promise of anonymity. She interviewed owner Dan Snyder twice. Dan Snyder and the club released current and former employees from any confidentiality obligations for purposes of speaking with Wilkinson and pledged that there would be no retaliation against any current or former employee who did so. Washington Football Team president Jason Wright emphasized this commitment and encouraged employees to cooperate and speak with Wilkinson.
Commissioner Goodell said: “I want to thank Beth Wilkinson and her team for conducting a thorough and independent review of the Washington club’s workplace culture and conduct and providing both the club and me with a series of thoughtful recommendations based on her findings. Beth and her team performed their work in a highly professional and ethical manner. Most importantly, I want to thank the current and former employees who spoke to Beth and her team; they provided vital information that will help ensure that the workplace environment at the club continues to improve. It is incredibly difficult to relive painful memories. I am grateful to everyone who courageously came forward.”
Based on Wilkinson’s review, the Commissioner concluded that for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional. Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.
Ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues. In some instances, senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment. This set the tone for the organization and led to key executives believing that disrespectful behavior and more serious misconduct was acceptable in the workplace. The problems were compounded by inadequate HR staff and practices and the absence of an effectively and consistently administered process for reporting or addressing employee complaints, as well as a widely reported fear of retaliation. When reports were made, they were generally not investigated and led to no meaningful discipline or other response.
Dan Snyder has acknowledged that, as the club’s owner, he is responsible for the culture. Owners are obligated to set an appropriate tone and establish appropriate standards, develop and implement appropriate policies, including a policy of non-retaliation, ensure that there is proper training, compliance, and recordkeeping, invest in employee-related systems and infrastructure, and instill an ethic of respect at the club. This did not occur at the Washington club for far too long, and Dan Snyder has acknowledged his personal responsibility for that failure.
Beginning near the end of the 2019 season, Dan and Tanya Snyder made a series of significant organizational changes based on his recognition that the club’s workplace culture, initially on the football side but then more broadly, was deficient and needed to be significantly improved to enable football and other club employees to perform at their full potential. These steps included the hiring of Head Coach Ron Rivera and the decision to replace a number of top club executives. Additional and more widespread changes have been made over the past year, and Wilkinson’s review identified several strong and positive steps taken by ownership over the past year to improve workplace conduct and culture in Washington. None of the managers or executives identified as having engaged in misconduct is still employed at the club. In place of the prior leadership group, the Snyders have hired a new, highly qualified and diverse team of executives on both the football and business sides of the club. These include club president Jason Wright, Chief HR Officer Andre Chambers, General Counsel Damon Jones, Chief Financial Officer Greg Rush, Senior Vice President of External Engagement and Communication Julie Jensen, and Senior Vice President of Media and Content Julie Donaldson, as well as Coach Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew. Overall, the new executive team shows an impressive commitment to diversity, with a substantial number of women and people of color in leadership roles. This leadership team appears to be both respected within the community and genuinely committed to changing the workplace environment and is doing so with the full support of the Snyders. In addition, the cheerleader program is now under the leadership of Petra Pope, who has replaced the all-female squad with what Pope has described as “an inclusive, co-ed, diverse, athletic” dance team that will no longer pose for calendars.
Apart from hiring a new leadership team, the club has also implemented strong and state-of-the-art policies and protocols regarding workplace conduct, reporting, and non-retaliation and has also moved to institute comprehensive training. The club has retained outside resources to assist in this effort and has given its assurance that these consultants will remain engaged on an ongoing basis and will be available to discuss their work with the league office.
Commissioner Goodell stated: “Over the past 18 months, Dan and Tanya have recognized the need for change and have undertaken important steps to make the workplace comfortable and dignified for all employees, and those changes, if sustained and built upon, should allow the club to achieve its goal of having a truly first-tier workplace. I truly appreciate their commitment to fully implement each of the below ten recommendations, but the league also must ensure accountability for past deficiencies and for living up to current and future commitments.”
Wilkinson made several specific recommendations, which are set forth below, regarding actions that the club should take to further improve and sustain the workplace culture improvements made over the past year. Dan and Tanya have agreed to implement each of these ten (10) recommendations. The club has made considerable progress over the last 18 months in implementing these recommendations and will be required to implement each of them. The specific recommendations are:
- Protocols for Reporting Harassment: Develop a formal protocol for reporting allegations of harassment and misconduct that allows victims to report anonymously and without fear of retaliation. Ensure that this protocol is communicated to all employees via the club’s employee handbook and in other ways. Engage a third party to monitor a confidential hotline/secure email site to receive workplace misconduct reports.
- Disciplinary Action Plan: Develop a formal disciplinary action plan with clear protocols and processes for documenting, evaluating, and adjudicating misconduct. Apply those protocols and processes consistently in a prompt and proportionate manner across the organization. This includes holding executives and other supervisors accountable for addressing misconduct in the organization, including by requiring that supervisory level employees formally report any misconduct of which they become aware and disciplining the failure to report such misconduct.
- Regular Culture Surveys: Conduct regular, anonymized workplace culture and sexual harassment climate surveys to track the Club’s progress in addressing these issues.
- Regular Trainings: Engage an independent and professional third party to provide regular training for all employees on bullying, sexual and other forms of harassment, diversity and inclusion, and other issues of workplace conduct. Provide special training for managers and supervisors on how to recognize and handle harassment and reports of harassment. Review the proposed training program with the League office and incorporate recommendations.
- More Diverse Workforce: Increase the number of women and minorities throughout the organization, particularly in leadership and supervisory positions that have decision-making authority.
- Establish Clear Lines of Authority: Implement clear organizational structure and clear lines of authority for club executives to eliminate influence of informal or unaffiliated advisors on the Club’s business operations.
- Expand and Empower HR and Legal: Expand and empower the in-house HR and Legal Departments, particularly with respect to their ability to investigate and address allegations of misconduct at all levels, without interference from club executives.
- Develop Formal Onboarding, Performance Management and Compensation System, and Exit Interview Process: Implement a formal onboarding process for new hires, a program of regular performance and compensation reviews, and an exit interview or debriefing process for departures.
- Protecting Cheerleading Team: Ensure cheerleaders (if a program is retained, either in its earlier form or in the form of a new, co-ed Dance Team) have access to HR and other organizational resources, including by assigning an HR employee to the cheerleading squad. Confirm that the Team’s processes and trainings described above apply to and are clearly communicated to the cheerleaders.
- Regular Assessment of Policies: Require the Club to retain an independent professional consultant selected by the Team and approved by the league office to conduct an annual assessment of all employment policies to ensure they are both consistent with best practices and being implemented in practice. The league office will have full access to the consultant.
Having considered Wilkinson’s findings and other information brought to his attention, the Commissioner has decided that, in addition to paying all fees and expenses associated with Wilkinson’s investigation, the club will pay $10 million, which will be used to support organizations committed to character education, anti-bullying, healthy relationships and related topics. They will also fund programs directed more broadly at improving the workplace, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups, and training and development programs throughout the league, with recipients identified with the assistance of respected third-party advisors. We will solicit recommendations from the club, particularly for organizations based in the Washington metropolitan area.
In addition, to ensure that the club’s recent workplace conduct and culture improvements are sustained and that its stated commitment to progress is realized, the club shall have the following semi-annual reporting obligations through July 31, 2023:
Report to the league office, through an independent third party selected by the club and approved by the league office, on:
- the club’s progress in implementing each of Wilkinson’s workplace recommendations, with the first report due by July 31, 2021;
- the results of the culture and other surveys recommended; and
- all complaints, including those made at exit interviews or post-employment, that reasonably present workplace-related issues of bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, or retaliation, whether made anonymously or by an identified party, as well as how the club addressed those complaints. Based on these semi-annual reports, the league office will be permitted to conduct follow-up inquiries with any workplace consultants the club has engaged.
Any material failure to implement these recommendations or to otherwise comply fully with these obligations and the commitments may result in an extension of the reporting period or other discipline.
As co-CEO, Tanya Snyder will assume responsibilities for all day-to-day team operations and represent the club at all league meetings and other league activities for at least the next several months. Dan Snyder will concentrate on a new stadium plan and other matters. All senior executives of the club, including Dan and Tanya Snyder, will undertake comprehensive training in workplace conduct and related issues (including bullying, diversity and inclusion, harassment, LGBTQ issues, microaggression, and unconscious bias, among other topics).
As a league, we will review our own policies and practices and will look to supplement existing programs to promote respectful, inclusive, and professional workplaces that are free of misconduct. In addition to current annual training and our critical response protocols, we will develop additional comprehensive and mandatory training across the league, including on bullying, discrimination, and harassment; a requirement that all club employees have the ability anonymously to report issues of workplace conduct to their club or the NFL; and ensuring that all clubs are fully informed of best practices for building and maintaining a diverse, healthy and respectful workplace environment.