Hello, and welcome back to the Marcus Williams Training Academy podcast, where we talk about all things misconduct: behavior in the workplace, how it happens, and how it is treated, and the response. Today is another segment of our Misconduct in the News and this one's a little bit different though because this was not a story picked up by the normal news media. This was a story posted on social media on Facebook specifically by the complainant himself; a long post detailing what he endured in the workplace working for Disney. And it has been picked up by industry blogs and websites in the theater industry.
But the best source of information is the post itself. Normally we don't have the, essentially the statement from the complainant to work off of, and so we do here which is interesting. We don't have a response from the accused employee or the employer, Disney, we only have the complainant so just like in all of our Misconduct in the News segments, all we have is what is publicly available; and so we are going to dive into the story and talk about the response, what was done correctly what was done incorrectly, and we'll go from there.
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Okay, let's dive into the story. So, Cooper Howell is the complainant. He is the person who posted this information on Facebook. He is a black man, an actor. He tried out for Disney's “Frozen.” It's a stage show based on the popular animated Disney show “Frozen.” And he had no expectations of getting a part, but he was called back and he ultimately was, he was cast in the role of Prince Hans. Very excited.
So, he breaks his story into two parts, heaven and hell. And he said at the beginning it was heaven. He got this dream role. He loved the director. He loved the cast. Everyone worked well together, and in his opinion they put together a magical show. So, the director was Liesl Tommy and she was the one who cast him, and he said she treated him fantastic. So, “Liesl MADE SURE, almost overly sure that the poc’s (people of color) in the cast felt equal…[f]rom having Disney executives come and tell us that they were happy to have us there, to side conversations with John Lasseter, we were made to feel overly welcome playing the parts we were playing.” So, everything was going really well.
Now I want to make it very clear that racism is unacceptable in any form in the workplace, in personal relationships, or anywhere else. This episode, the purpose is not to talk about the racism that he experienced or what that means, it's to talk about it in the context as misconduct in the workplace, a violation of policy that should be investigated and dealt with. So, we're focusing on that. So, I want to keep, I want to keep focused there and just make that clear from the beginning that that is where we are going with this story.
So, everything was going great and then it wasn't. So, now we get to the segment on hell. And I just kind of gave you the background. He wrote more about how-how great it was, but essentially Tommy went back to New York City and she was replaced by Roger Castellano, the new director. So, Castellano came in and “he told us on the first day” his task “was to ‘change the show.’” Have you ever had a manager who came in in the very first day said, “Okay, I'm here to change everything?” He starts, he or she starts making changes, fixing things, basically communicating to you that you're broken, that things are not working well, that it's not going well. Essentially saying here the show is no good, I've got to change things. And he made it sound like that was his task, like he was hired to do it that way. That's how, Howell describes it.
So, just as it would be in any workplace the employees were a little taken aback and they defensive. Here they are doing their best. They've worked really hard on this show they thought it was going really well and suddenly someone comes in and says it's not. So they push back a little bit.
So, Howell says, “Everyone's initial reaction was to push back, but when people who questioned their notes or their changes started getting days removed [from] their schedule or being replaced entirely by a new actor, the Hyperion theater became a place where no one was allowed to speak out.” So, they tried this push back. It's saying hey but this is why I do it this way and suddenly there was retaliation. So, it wasn't just that the director said no, I'd like you to do it my way now. I'm the director. Suddenly there was retaliation. They stopped getting shows. Essentially it's like if you were on an hourly job, you would stop being put on the schedule. Suddenly your hours drop that you were you're scheduled to work. So, direct retaliation; so this hostile work environment started to form. This is what Castellano was creating.
Now as a director of a show, you're in charge. It's your show and it can be really frustrating when your cast members start questioning everything you say. You give them a note and they argue about it. Not only does that take a lot of time, but it's not, they're not the director. They don't get to see the entire vision of the stage. That is the director's job, not the cast member's job. And having been in that position it can be really annoying. But it's improp-it's totally wrong to then retaliate against those people. If it becomes a problem you have a conversation with them off to the side saying hey if you've got, if you think I'm doing something wrong, let's have a conversation about it privately. When I'm giving notes, you know, I'm the director and I need you to follow them.
But anyway, he was taking that role giving notes and creating this, I'm, you know, I'm the boss, I'm in charge. If you question me you will be punished. Howell said no one felt they could “do anything for fear of losing their livelihood.” In other words, it got to the point where they thought if they, if they argued or didn't agree that they would actually lose their job. That was the level of fear among the cast.
So now there's the targeting, specifically of Howell. So, Howell played with a good friend and he played across from her in the show. She played Princess Anna. Her name is Dominique Paton. So, Castellano pulled Howell and Patton in to the room and said, “When the two of you perform the show together it's too…urban.” Too urban. Howell took that as a very racial racist remark but as a good actor will do, he asked for clarification. What do you mean by that? It is, is it in the way that we're speaking, our pattern of speech, our rhythm, the way we move, the way we talk, the way we interact? What specifically are you talking about? And they said, “And when asked what he meant, he smiled with a little shrug and said ‘you can figure that out.’ You’re smart.” Howell said from that point on, instead of being Prince Hans he was black, “Black Hans” and she was “Black Anna.”
Racial harassment in the workplace. And then he and Paton saw a marked decrease in the number of shows that they were scheduled to do together, actual action that this manager was taking against them. They weren't getting scheduled. And then they started getting more notes. So, everyone would get notes here and there, and when you get to the point where you're performing every day, your notes should go down drastically because you're on stage, you've already done all your rehearsals and all the work. It should be little things. But he said he was getting, he and Paton were getting copious notes every day on every single little thing, and as a good actor he said that's fine, if we're doing something wrong, give us notes. No problem; that is totally appropriate. But-but Castellano made a mistake that managers frequently make in assuming that employees don't talk to each other. And Howell did. He talked to other co-stars and said, are you, is he is he being as nitpicky with you as he is with me? Is he really, you know, giving you this amount of notes? And they all said, no, we're hardly getting any notes at all. It's only you. These notes are targeted at you.
Howell said he even would sneak into the audience to watch other co-stars play the part and he noticed they were doing things that were a little bit different or interpreting the script in different ways and they were not getting any notes, even when they took liberties with the script. Whereas, he would and he felt like this was all targeted because of his race.
Now we add a sexual harassment component to it. So, if you have little kids watching, this might be the time (or listening) this might be the time to hit pause and listen to later. It's not overly graphic, but we are going to talk about some body parts here. So, Howell said, “And then I started getting notes about my penis. Most of the time these ‘penis sessions’, as I call them were given in private rooms without a stage manager present.” So, this very uncomfortable conversation without anyone else there, just between the two of them. And I don't know policy wise if they're required to have a stage manager during those kinds of meetings, but that would have been smart on the director's part anyway.
So Howell's response was this is the costume that Disney gave me. I'm wearing what I was issued. And he was a prince so he had these tight pants like tights and castellano was saying his penis was way too noticeable and distracting in that costume. And Howell was saying what do you want me to do? So, in dance when you're in a cost-in a tight pants like that, think of a male ballet dancer, you may have seen they wear what we call a dance belt. And if you're not familiar with that, think jockstrap for an athlete. So Howell said his point was well it's Disney's, if Disney thinks there's a problem, Disney needs to fix the problem. That's not on me. And he said his white co-stars were actually given dance belts for the same thing, but he wasn't. He was being told he had to go out and get his own. It seemed, and I don't know, again, I don't know if that's true or not, if they were issued a dance belt or if they brought their own. It would seem like someone, as a dancer he would have one. But his argument was, I'm required to wear a specific costume; you should provide me with that costume, especially if you're providing it to everyone else.
So, racial component in that he wasn't given the same, issued the same equipment as his white co-stars and sexual harassment because of this constant, and it became this constant thing talking about his penis. And usually it was in these private sessions, but then it went out into the open. It became public, which is even more, you could call that harassment. This is behavior, sexual in nature that is just not appropriate, it's offensive, it's objectively offensive. He said, “Once, he screamed at me in the green room in front of all my co-stars during lunch about how incredibly unprofessional I was, about how he was tired of seeing my [d-word], and that if I didn't go buy myself one I didn't deserve to be there anymore.” And then, (I’m trying not to use the word because I want this available for all audiences except for, like I said, small kids in this section).
So now it's public, what do you do? Howell wanted to know what to do. So, here's where we get to the response and kind of the-the biggest, the misconduct. You know, there's this these allegations that this misconduct happened, we've got that. But, now let's talk about the response. He said, “During this time I went to every stage manager in the building and told them about being singled out and about my penis. They all told me to write a complaint report and it would go to some place called ‘HR.’ Which I did. Numerously. More months passed. Nothing from ‘HR.’ Multiple cast members who witnessed my note sessions encouraged me to go to the HR themselves. I didn't honestly know what an HR was. As soon as it was explained to me by my allies even what an HR was I went to the head of HR at Disneyland herself and waited outside of her door. I asked her if she ever got any of my HR reports and she told me that she had received no HR reports from the Hyperion ever.” He was turning in these reports and they were never making it to HR.
So we have multiple problems in this paragraph. One, clearly we have a training issue that he doesn't know what HR is, that HR is human resources and that human resources is the place to go if you have a problem if you have a complaint, if you need help. If you-if there's misconduct being perpetrated against you at work, that's where you go. He should have known that. That should have been part of his on-board training as soon as he was hired. So, that's a massive training failure. You can say, how does it, how would he not, how does someone not know about HR? Well not everyone has experience with it and how would they know unless someone tells you that that's where you go? When you're having a problem, how are you supposed to know? That’s a major training issue there.
Second, co-workers saying you need to go to HR. Why didn't someone walk him there? Why didn't someone help him get there? And when he made these complaints to HR, I don't know if they were electronic, if they were paper, who he turned them in to, but I hope they didn't go through Castellano's desk, because clearly there needed to be another process to make this complaint. And maybe there is one and he just didn't know what it was or he didn't submit them to the right person. I don't know. But he thought he was communicating complaints and for months got no response. He thought nobody cared, nobody was doing anything, and it's because they never actually received it.
And I don't know where that where the failure point was in that process. We just know that it was a failure.
And there is some responsibility on his part that he should have followed up earlier, he should have made sure that it got to where it needed to go. He should have done some research and some homework to find out. And the co-workers the stage managers, they should have known that. They've been there, a stage manager is someone who works not just on that show, has probably been there for a long time. They would have known better. Someone should have helped him get his complaint to the right person.
So, then he goes to the head of HR. He basically bypasses everyone. It goes straight to the head. She said okay fill out this form. You have someone in your office who says he's made multiple complaints. Nothing's been done about them. He finds out that you never even got them and you hand him a form and say fill this out? How about have a conversation? How about you walk through the form with him to assure him that you are going to do something and that you care?
So, we're starting off on the wrong foot with the HR response already. And as the director of HR, that's not what you do. Is that-if that's not your job, walk him down to the office of the person who will be handling his complaint and ask them to take care of him. Take a few moments to take care of the person to let them know that you're taking their complaint seriously.
Okay, next paragraph. “As we went over it, she asked me some questions and then set up a second meeting.” So, we did kind of a little bit of an interview not much. “On the second meeting she said that in order for my report to be given credence I would need witnesses to give their testimony. The witnesses, in fact the very people that told me to go to HR in the first place, said no. They didn't want to lose their jobs. In retrospect that might be the thing that hurt the most but, whatever…anyway, I was told ‘well…without testimonies we'll do an investigation and we'll call you when we've completed it.’ I never received a phone call.” Never received a phone call.
This, in my opinion based on this information, was not handled correctly. We do an initial interview. We call the person and said okay, you're responsible for creating your own witnesses. You're responsible for talking to everyone. Basically, the burden is on you to do the investigation. Bring me all of your witnesses. Now, it is totally legitimate to say, give me a list of people who saw or witness this behavior so that we can contact them as witnesses, and it’s even appropriate to say you're welcome to talk to them beforehand and ask them to be a witness on your behalf. Fine. But the problem is they put the burden on him to go and talk to these people, to ask them. And they were also living in this hostile work environment. They were also afraid to go against the director. So, as soon as this HR director knew this; as soon as she understood that, yes, he's targeting me personally but everyone is afraid of him, then that needed to be handled differently.
She needed to call those people in separately and say we have rules against retaliation. You are protected under our policies as a witness. So, if you'll give your statement now, we can't fix it not only for Howell, but for everyone unless we talk to you. It's up to you, but we want to assure you that if anything happens that you believe is retaliatory because of you talking to me today, let us know immediately and we'll handle it. They needed to assure these people that they were free to talk and share what happened without being punished or retaliated against.
But instead she just sat back in her office and said you go out and do this work and when he came back and said they don't want to, they're afraid, she said oh well not much we can do. We'll do an investigation. Did they actually do an investigation? It doesn't look like it. They never got back to him. They never told him what happened. He never saw anything actually happening. Nothing was ever fixed. It felt like to him it was just swept under the rug and nothing was done. That may be. The truth may be totally different. Maybe they did an investigation with as much information as they could. It's very possible. But he doesn't know that because they never communicated that. They lost that trust.
So, because of this experience Howell took this role that was his dream role, this heaven, lived through the hell, went to ask for help, got no help, and he ended up quitting. He said he left his job with this with a horrible bad taste in his mouth because of the way he was treated and the way it was handled.
Now misconduct happens. People are treated badly. They will have bad experiences at work. But that doesn't mean that that needs to color their entire employment experience at your company. If it had been handled correctly; if someone had helped him get to HR sooner, if HR had gone-taken a few extra minutes to show him that they cared, that they wanted to hear what happened, that they wanted to-to actually fix the issue, if there was an issue there that they wanted to investigate, if they took the time to go down to the theater themselves and maybe watch or call the actors in and assure them that they were safe to talk, that they wouldn't be retaliated against, all of these things HR could have done to mitigate, to build trust.
Even at the end, if they couldn't have substantiated it and they could have said yeah, you know, yes he's being mean he's kind of a bully, but it’s not really a violation of our policy, could have got-that could have been the result. But there was no result. They didn't do anything. They didn't show they cared.
So what happened destroyed the entire experience for one employee and then it got posted to the entire world on Facebook. And it was shared far and wide that that's how this company dealt with this situation of racial and sexual harassment in their workplace.
What about when other actors read this story? They talk to him? Even though there are a lot of actors in this country, it is a small community. So, they see this. Do you think they are going to ever work for a Roger Castellano if they hear he's the director? How about Disney? Are they going to try out for a part in a show when there's a chance they will be treated the way that Cooper Howell was treated?
Again, I only have his side of the story, but from that information, from his post, from him sharing his experience, providing essentially his statement to the entire world, we see some clear problems. Because even if that's not exactly Disney’s side, they-they may say that they did other things, the perception on his side was they did nothing. And that's the perception that was shared with the world.
Trust. How you act. Taking that extra five minutes to build that relationship, to build that trust when someone comes to you for help is so important. Don't be so focused or so busy that you can't take a couple minutes to show someone that you care. It's not worth it. Take the time take the extra few minutes to focus, to listen, to be there for them.
All right, that was this episode of Misconduct in the News, or Social Media. Please again, subscribe to my channel, to the podcast Marcus Williams Training Academy. Share it far and wide. I really appreciate it and I will see you next time.