ICM Partners has been quite public about trying to reform its own workplace culture. But according to a story published in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, working at the high-powered agency can still be a traumatic experience for many lower-level employees.
The article documented a workplace where agents and other supervisors felt free to take out their frustrations on their assistants, screaming at them, demeaning them and making them feel worthless. The story also cited two examples of alleged sexual harassment against non-employees. The overall picture is one that is fairly common in Hollywood — a place where low-status employees are expected to bear the brunt of their bosses’ tirades without complaint.
“What goes on in these agencies, you don’t see in any other industry,” said employment attorney Carney Shegerian. “You don’t see other employers trying to get away with what they do in entertainment.”
Around Hollywood, many executives and rival agents wondered what the fallout would be for ICM and speculated that some of the agency’s clients, a group that includes Shonda Rhimes, Regina King, Vince Gilligan, Ellen DeGeneres and Spike Lee, would defect.
The mood internally at ICM Partners in Los Angeles was said to be somber although somewhat defiant given the strong on-the-record statement defending the agency’s track record on diversity matters from female partners Lorrie Bartlett, Jennifer Joel and Janet Carol Norton. Industry sources said ICM leaders on Wednesday quietly sought to minimize the impact of the allegations by sharing the responses and rebuttals that were sent to the Los Angeles Times. Sources said the biggest concern was whether the unwelcome scrutiny would cost them clients, now or in the future. To that end, some agents had preemptively reached out to filmmakers, showrunners and other talent they represent to brace them for the article.
The ICM report, which focused heavily on toxic workplace culture, may be part of a wider reckoning for an industry where belittling, denigrating, and screaming at assistants and employees is widespread. Last month, a story in The Hollywood Reporter that documented allegations of bullying and workplace abuse by producer Scott Rudin galvanized activists and performers who were pushing for the entertainment business to treat people with more respect. It also resulted in career fallout for Rudin, who, under public pressure, said he would “step back” from his work on Broadway and in the film and television businesses.
“What we’re seeing with Scott Rudin and now ICM is that these incredibly powerful entities are no longer being given free rein to do whatever they want to do,” says Liz Alper, co-founder of #PayUpHollywood, an advocacy group that was formed to push for better conditions and pay for Hollywood’s assistants. “We want to give power back to assistants and support staff who have been targeted, abused and gaslit. We need to make sure we’re protecting the most vulnerable among us.”
Alper and other advocates believe that even the term “bullying” needs to be reexamined. She notes that after the Rudin story broke, friends and family of Kevin Graham-Caso, one of the producer’s ex-assistants, said he suffered from anxiety and depression due to the abuses he was subjected to while working for Scott Rudin Productions. He committed suicide last October.
“Bullying is too soft a term because it’s not technically illegal,” says Alper. “Racist behavior in the workplace or sexual harassment, that’s illegal. But bullying sounds like we’re just talking about childish conflicts on the playground. This is more than that. It’s mental and often physical abuse. And these bullies should be recognized for the abusers that they are.”
Some people are taking legal action to stop this kind of workplace culture. Last September, Shegerian filed a suit on behalf of Alexandria Jones, a former assistant in ICM’s music division. Jones alleged that she had been yelled at and denied lunch breaks, and ultimately suffered such anxiety that she fainted at work and had to take a medical leave. When she returned, she alleged that she was demoted to the mail room, and then fired, according to the complaint.
Such workplace conditions could be a subject for collective bargaining, if assistants and support staff were unionized. They are not, and so instead, such situations are governed by the California labor code. The law bars things like sexual harassment and discrimination, but generally does not forbid screaming at employees or treating professional staff as personal servants.
In order to file a lawsuit, a plaintiff’s attorney will have to sift through the situation to identify some mistreatment that can be couched as discrimination.
“A lot of times when that kind of ugly power is wielded by bosses in the workplace, it’s wielded against people who are un-empowered across the board,” Shegerian said. “If you’re an astute employment litigator, you can find claims that are going to protect against that.”
In Jones’ case, Shegerian argued that she was subjected to disability discrimination, citing heart palpitations brought on by her anxiety.
But finding a plausible cause of action is only one hurdle. In Jones’ case, she had signed an agreement sending all disputes to confidential arbitration. In January, Judge Gregory Alarcon granted ICM’s motion to refer the case to an arbitrator.
“These are difficult cases in arbitration,” Shegerian said, noting that arbitrators have traditionally been older, retired judges, who are less than receptive to young people’s workplace complaints. “Now some of them are younger, and there are more females and Baby Boomers who are more sensitive to it. It’s a slight bit fairer, but not much.”
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.