More of the kind of news that BET Networks probably doesn’t want right now, following the public legal dust-up they had with “Being Mary Jane” star Gabrielle Union over contractual obligations a few months ago (read about that here if you missed it), and the exit of a key executive (President of Programming Stephen Hill left the company in March to, as he suggested, enjoy other experiences that life has to offer).
In the surprising announcement of Hill’s exit was also mention that head of BET originals Zola Mashariki had left the company as well, although no reason was given. About a day after, Mashariki released an internal memo saying that she had in fact not been terminated, but rather she was on medical leave after a breast cancer diagnosis made in December, with tentative plans to return pending results of her surgery.
Here is Mashariki’s memo which we received:
As many of you know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December and have been out of the office and on medical leave since my first surgery on February 6. I just had another surgery last week and it is a painful recovery for me. It has also been hard on my children.
Thank you all for your kind words and support while I have been out. I miss you too!
I heard yesterday that Stephen was leaving BET. I’m concerned that there was a reference to me, as Stephen’s departure is a separate issue from my status at the company.
Here are the facts: I am on medical leave. My job is protected by the Family Medical Leave Act and related statutes (FMLA) and I have a contract in place. Viacom/BET are aware that I am scheduled to return on April 11 and that my medical leave may need to be extended depending on the progress of my recovery.
Bob Bakish has said our company values should be honesty, empathy and bravery. I agree with this wholeheartedly and our team has embodied this over the two years we have worked together. Without question, including me in Stephen’s departure announcement in not in keeping with those values.
I am continuing to focus on improving my health. I have faith in the Viacom/BET leadership and know they will fix this. I have a long history in Hollywood and am grateful for the outpouring of support I have received across the entire industry during this difficult time.
Our original programming team has accomplished a lot in a short time and the filmmakers and community are excited to work with us again. There is so much more to do.
All my best, Zola
Effectively fired by the network while on leave for breast cancer treatment, Mashariki has taken legal action against BET, former president of programming Stephen Hill, and parent company Viacom, filing a discrimination lawsuit that claims ongoing and widespread harassment of women in all forms.
According to the lawsuit, which you can read here, Mashariki claims: “The Company fosters a good old boys’ club atmosphere and mentality that are hostile to women and their advancement […] This misogynistic culture, which marginalizes, demeans, and undervalues women, begins at the top of the corporate structure.”
In addition: “When Ms. Mashariki was at her weakest moment, Viacom, BET, and Defendant Hill escalated their retaliation against her, proffering that due to her disability, she could no longer represent BET […] If Viacom’s and BET’s actions with respect to her leave were not enough, upon information and belief, a senior executive at BET suggested to Ms. Mashariki’s colleagues that she was ‘faking’ her breast cancer. These false and reprehensible statements caused irreparable damage to Ms. Mashariki by suggesting that she was a liar attempting to avoid the duties of her office.”
More from the claim: “Women are grossly underrepresented in leadership positions at the Company […] The executive leadership of the Company is overwhelmingly male. Before Defendant Hill left BET, seven of the ten members of its executive team were men. Viacom has a similar overrepresentation of male executives, as six of the nine members of its senior management team are men. Development opportunities, including roles on critical committees, are routinely offered to male executives rather than their female counterparts.”
She singles out Stephen Hill in the lawsuit: “Defendant Hill has been permitted to systematically discriminate against and harass numerous women. He is protected by the Company’s old boys’ club and HR department.”
Hill is also accused of verbally attacking and threatening Mashariki “when she demonstrated ‘disobedience’ by not immediately forwarding an email that she had not yet opened or reviewed,” states the claim.
“The following week, Ms. Mashariki told Defendant Hill that as a woman, she felt uncomfortable with his intimidation and that his conduct made her feel physically unsafe in the workplace […] Defendant Hill half-heartedly apologized, qualifying that she could have avoided the situation if she had just obeyed him. Following this unremorseful response, Ms. Mashariki again complained to HR and pointed out that Defendant Hill’s apology felt like victim blaming, a common response to women who protest harassment. Ms. Mashariki was particularly concerned because this was not the first time Defendant Hill had tried to intimidate her or other women,” the lawsuit states.
Mashariki also claims that Hills exiting the company was more of a termination by BET, and not a willing move: “Defendant Hill announced he was leaving BET on March 29, 2017, while Ms. Mashariki was on leave… Upon information and belief, Defendant’s Hill’s contract was terminated. Between February 9 and March 29, Viacom and BET went from supporting Defendant Hill to terminating him. This is likely because Defendant Hill’s performance suffered when he could no longer appropriate and take credit for Ms. Mashariki’s work while she was on leave, nor could he effectively lead Original Programming without her.”
And there’s much more.
Ultimately, Mashariki is claiming gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, retaliation, violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, denial of equal pay for equal work, not preventing harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, defamation, and more. She’s asking for unspecified monetary damages plus a permanent injunction against Viacom and BET from engaging in unlawful practices, as well as an order requiring the companies to implement programs to remedy a hostile work environment. She also asks to be given back her job at the company at equitable salary.
Thus far, BET has called the claims “without merit,” adding that Mashariki was fired because of a lack of performance on her part as Head of Original Programming at the network.
Also, parent company Viacom issued thisstatement in response: “These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit… We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing and we intend to respond to the specific allegations in the course of legal proceedings. At Viacom and BET, we take the health and well-being of our employees very seriously and we are committed to fostering an inclusive, diverse workplace that supports the success of all employees.”
This all goes public during a week when Viacom’s stock price has seen a drop of about 15% on news that the company saw its worst-ever first quarter subscriber loss – five times as many losses as last year – which is being affected by cord-cutting, which has led to concern among shareholders that that advertising dollars may weaken.
I’m sure this isn’t the last that we’ll hear of this suit, so stay tuned.