CBS Showrunner Investigated Twice in 2016 for HR Violations, Employees Say Behavior Continues

NCIS New Orleans
Courtesy of CBS

Brad Kern took over the reins of “NCIS: New Orleans as showrunner in January 2016, in the midst of its second season. Within a year, two separate HR investigations were launched into his behavior, Variety has learned. The inquiries centered on allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination against women — particularly working mothers — and racially charged comments, among other issues.

While the investigations found Kern had indeed made “insensitive” and “offensive” comments, CBS concluded that there was no evidence of retaliation, harassment, discrimination or gender bias but told staffers that “appropriate” action had been taken, including sensitivity training for the producer. Variety spoke to seven people who have worked for the series who report that his inappropriate behavior has continued, despite the investigations.

“We were aware of these allegations when they took place in 2016, and took them very seriously,” CBS said in a statement to Variety. “Both complaints were acted upon immediately with investigations and subsequent disciplinary action. While we were not able to corroborate all of the allegations, we took this action to address behavior and management style, and have received no further complaints since this was implemented.”

Through his representatives, Kern declined to comment for this story.

Interviews with those who worked for “NCIS: New Orleans” some of whom pre-dated Kern’s arrival, some of whom departed this year, all of whom no longer work for the show — paint a picture of what many called a “gender bully.” “He discriminates against women, against working mothers, against anyone he can’t control — especially women,” one source says.

Kern makes sexualized remarks about women, has given them massages without asking, and mocked a nursing mother in front of her colleagues. At one point, Kern launched into a “tirade” toward a woman who worked for him, telling her that she was “failing as a wife and mother.” Also, according to multiple sources, at times he spoke in an offensive voice meant to imitate African-American vernacular speech.

The first H.R. investigation began in June 2016, after Zach Strauss, a former writer on “NCIS: NOLA” (as those on the show call it), filed a formal complaint with CBS. He says he could not tolerate the insensitive remarks that were constantly made and the way his female colleagues were treated.

“What affected me was that talented writers felt the need to resign or step away from a job that they were good at,” Strauss tells Variety. “This was their living and they were willing to walk away from a high-paying, hard-to-get job because they couldn’t stand working in such a toxic environment.”

According to H.R. documents that Variety has obtained, in the first investigation, Kern was accused of making “inappropriate comments related to women,” uttering “statements that referred to women in a negative light,” deploying “gender-based and racial stereotypes,” using “an abrasive and/or demeaning tone,” and making “disparaging remarks about an actress.”

One writer, who had been courted to join the show before Kern’s arrival, was working on a flextime schedule approved by executive producer Gary Glasberg, the show’s creator. A few months after Kern took over, he announced that any such arrangements would not be honored. According to multiple sources, he then targeted her — attacking her work, making demeaning comments and making her “miserable,” sources say — until she felt she had no choice but to leave.

“If a working parent had to leave at a specific time, Kern almost always made that person feel like they were doing something wrong,” one former writer says. “He would make disparaging comments that were supposed to be jokes. We all knew they were not.”

Racially insensitive behavior was also a problem, according to several sources. In the writers room, he would sometimes employ a stereotyped rendition of African-American speech patterns as he tried out dialogue meant for characters played by Darryl “Chill” Mitchell and C.C.H. Pounder, African-American members of the drama’s cast. “It was offensive,” says a former employee.

One “NCIS: NOLA” writer had penned a script in which two guest characters — a couple — were supposed to be African-American. It emerged that the woman was likely to be played by a white woman. On a conference call, Kern said it would not make sense to cast a black man as a romantic interest for a character played by a white woman, according to one person who was on the call and one person who was told about the comment afterward.

Other remarks centered on women’s appearances. Several sources said that at many different times, he spoke approvingly of casting a well-known actress in a role on the show because an important CBS executive “wanted to f—k her.” Kern allegedly engineered the exit of Zoe McLellan, an original cast member who did not return for the third season, because, in his view, men didn’t find her “f—kable,” multiple sources tell Variety. (McLellan did not reply to Variety’s requests for comment.)

The first investigation, which was concluded in July 2016, found that CBS was “unable to conclude that Mr. Kern engaged in discrimination or harassment,” but that he had been found to make “inappropriate remarks.” “We have taken appropriate responsive action,” wrote Timothy Farrell, a VP for human resources at CBS. 

Kern would regularly mention, sources say, the fact that H.R. personnel had told him not to talk about their inquiries into the “NCIS: NOLA” workplace. “He began making jokes. ‘I can’t touch you — H.R. has a shock collar on me.’ It was hilarious to him. That was the only result of the H.R. investigation,” says another former employee.

Most report that Kern “doubled down” on his questionable remarks and harassing behaviors. “He was emboldened,” one source says.

“He would brag about his bad behavior. It got worse and worse, and the network stood by him every step of the way,” says another woman. She left midway through 2016, and not long after her departure, she discovered that her name had been left off an “NCIS: NOLA” script she had worked on. Negotiations between her lawyers, CBS and the WGA were necessary before a story credit was eventually restored to her.

Another woman, according to a number of sources, was targeted by Kern for leaving the writers’ room to pump breast milk. Once, while she was gone, Kern told the rest of her colleagues that she should pump her breast milk in the room, in front of everyone, because “cows in the field” are sometimes milked out in the open. He then began miming the motions of milking a cow.

When she returned to the room, multiple sources say Kern questioned her at length about why she did not pump in front of her colleagues, and whether the process hurt. He then made the hand motions again. “She turned bright red. She stammered out some answer, but she was clearly extremely embarrassed,” says one colleague.

Under California and Federal law, employers have to accommodate the needs of lactating employees, and refrain from harassing, targeting or discriminating against them in any way, according to lawyer Melissa Goodman, the director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project for the ACLU of Southern California. “It is a form of sex discrimination to single out or harass women because they’re lactating,” Goodman tells Variety. “The bottom line is that under the law, employers should not make women feel demeaned for pumping or for anything relating to lactation.”

The writer was encouraged by co-workers to go to H.R., and she did so in late 2016. That launched a second investigation, which concluded similarly in February 2017.

“We were unable to conclude that Mr. Kern engaged in discrimination, harassment or retaliation,” wrote Farrell. “We are satisfied that Mr. Kern’s assignments, management, and employment decisions were based on legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reasons. However, he did make some offensive comments. We have taken appropriate responsive action.”

Less than two months after the second investigation ended, the writer who was pumping breast milk at work was fired by Kern. According to sources, his explanation was that her writing hadn’t improved over the course of the season. But sources say that her work was on par with that of other members of the staff. “Given the circumstances, it seemed like retaliation,” says one source.

Kern’s alleged behavior is part of a pattern that extends back decades, according to multiple sources who worked for Kern when he was the showrunner of “Charmed,” a program from Spelling Television that ran on the WB for eight seasons. During its run, sources say, Kern called a female executive assigned to the show “Tits McGee” and told female writers that writing in the nude would improve their work. One male former colleague called him “a creeper,” and another called Kern a “predator” for the way he physically interacted with women and quizzed them about sexual matters. 

To various individuals on the show’s staff — though not in the presence of the cast — he called the actresses on the show “bitches,” “trash,” “psychos” and “crazy.” One source recalls him “making fun” of “Charmed” actress and producer Alyssa Milano when an illness caused her to gain some weight. According to sources who spoke to Variety, he had a P.A. buy a copy of the issue of Playboy that featured a pictorial with “Charmed” star Shannen Doherty. “He held it up in front of everyone and he sat there critiquing every single photo,” says one source. (Efforts to reach Doherty, as well as Combs and “Charmed” actor Rose McGowan, were not successful.)

Nell Scovell, a co-executive producer on the “Charmed” writing staff, recalls Kern saying to a junior writer, in front of the rest of the writing staff, “I bet you’re good in bed.” William Schmidt, a “Charmed” co-executive producer, recalls a similar comment about that writer. Scovell and Schmidt say the junior writer in these incidents was Krista Vernoff, who is now the executive producer and showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Vernoff confirms that Kern made the comments in these anecdotes, and sent a written statement to Variety.

“The culture at ‘Charmed’ was consistent with the culture at Spelling 20 years ago,” Vernoff writes. “Misogyny and bullying were par for the course. When the network executives requested ‘more skin’ on a show that was supposed to be about female empowerment, they were given more skin without debate. When a Spelling executive requested that he be alerted before every ‘hot chick’ audition, he was alerted and would then walk the actress of his choice to her car. 

“As a young writer, I felt recognized and mentored by Brad Kern. As a female and a feminist, I felt conflicted and often uncomfortable,” Vernoff adds. “People are never just one thing. They’re never just good or just bad. At the end of my contract, Brad offered me a promotion and a significant raise, but I think it’s worth noting that I turned it down in favor of the uncertainty of staffing season.”

Schmidt says he once confronted Kern about his treatment of women, and Schmidt says he believes that is one reason his tenure on the show was cut short (Kern fired him a few months after hiring him).

“With executives, he could be as charming as hell,” Schmidt says. “But he created a toxic workplace. I’ve been on a lot of staffs, and this one had the most terrible, oppressive atmosphere by far — and it was worse for the women.” 

Informed of some of the allegations against Kern — past and present — Milano says, “It’s totally unacceptable, because it’s not only sexual harassment, it’s bullying.” (Variety’s full interview with Milano is here.)

Despite the CBS investigations, sources say “NCIS: NOLA” continued to be a hostile work environment, “every second of every day,” one source says. The most difficult part of their experience, many say, was that they felt unheard, despite multiple attempts to register their concerns.

These alleged behaviors led to a staff exodus during Kern’s time as the showrunner of “NCIS: NOLA.” During the year and a half that former executive producer Jeffrey Lieber was in charge, around five men and two women left. After Kern arrived, the number of departures increased: Around 11 writers or editors left or were fired in less than two years. Nine of them were women. 

“In my opinion, after Gary [Glasberg] unexpectedly died in September 2016, I think Brad felt that he didn’t have anybody over him to question all these firings,” says one woman who worked for him.

One woman who was let go last year says that the quality of her work wasn’t cited as a reason, just a lack of a “connection” with Kern. The next day, she received an email from Glasberg. “You worked hard and gave the job one hundred percent,” Glasberg wrote in the email. But he noted that “chemistry” plays a role in certain creative relationships and wrote, “I have to let Brad make the decisions that are right for him.” Glasberg noted that he would support this employee “however possible.”

“There’s absolutely sexism against women there,” says one female writer who worked for Kern. “He would patronize women — or just ignore them. I did not get a fair shot.”