Amid the protests over the death of George Floyd and larger racial inequalities in the US last week, Refinery29 swapped the colors of its website, going from its usual jewel-tone to the Black Lives Matter movement's signature black. It was supposed to be a show of solidarity and of unity between a progressive website aimed at women and the movement.
Instead it inspired a revolt.
In the ensuing days, a number of former employees came forward on Twitter to call out what they saw as hypocrisy on the part of the website's leadership, especially when it came to matters of race and diversity. The site's co-founder and editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, had repeatedly confused one black woman with another, one said; another tweeted that an executive once confused her with the caterer; a third person said she was paid $15,000 less than her two white coworkers who were doing the same job. And within less than a week, Barberich was out of her job, saying on Monday she was stepping down "to help diversify our leadership in editorial."
Ashley C. Ford, the former employee who said Barberich used to confuse her for another black woman, was one of the most prominent people who spoke out, saying in one tweet that she'd left Refinery29 after nine months because of a "toxic company culture where white women's egos ruled." She was moved to tweet, she told CNN Business afterward, by seeing a thread from another former employee, Ashley Alese Edwards.
"[W]hen I started reading that thread and started seeing some of the responses to it, the big thing that hit me was, 'Oh, you idiot. Leaving didn't make anything stop. ... You left and they kept doing this. They kept treating women like this. They kept treating black women like this,'" she said.
Ford and Edwards were not the only ones who spoke out, or the only ones with disturbing stories to tell. Some sources who spoke to CNN Business said there was a glaring lack of diversity at the company. Some said that despite the inclusive image that the site tried to present, Barberich made a number of editorial decisions that had the effect of diminishing minority and especially black women.
When Barberich was approving photos for the site, a former editor and a former executive photography director told CNN Business, she would reject some as "off-brand." The pictures she rejected that way were consistently of women who were either black or plus-size, they said.
These two former employees said they knew the types of celebrities that Barberich would approve to be included in Refinery's coverage, and that her decisions appeared to be based on race.
Barberich "loved Solange Knowles, Janelle Monáe was OK, but otherwise our team knew which celebrities would get rejected... the black ones," the former editor said. "We kept pitching them anyway. But it was a running and grim, unfunny joke on our team. We'd say, 'Gee, I wonder who will possibly get cut?' Because we knew."
In response to this accusation, Barberich said in a statement, "My goal has always been to help close the representation gap and I believe that is reflected across the pages of Refinery29."
The former executive photography director said she repeatedly filed human resources complaints against Barberich for her editorial choices but was told by an HR representative that it was not the company's job to manage Barberich, who reported to global president and chief content officer Amy Emmerich.
Nancy Dubuc, the CEO of Vice Media Group, which owns Refinery29, said in a statement to CNN Business on Thursday, that Vice was unaware of the "toxic culture" at Refinery29 when it acquired the company. "It is unacceptable, and we are grateful to all the people who bravely came forward to shed light on the situation," she said. Dubuc added that Vice is looking for a new editor-In-chief for the site and has put in place an "immediate action plan to ensure that our workplace empowers diversity, equity, and inclusion inside our walls and reflects the brand purpose audiences have come to know us for."
In a lengthy statement responding to CNN Business' questions about her alleged actions, Barberich said she had co-founded Refinery29 to "amplify and build community around women rarely seen or heard in media." She acknowledged a personal failure to do that, "to the detriment of Black women and women of color in particular," saying, "I couldn't see how my own perspectives and privileges held back the changes that needed to be made to further that purpose and vision, and to provide these women with the support they needed." She continued, "To all those I let down, especially members of my own team: I'm deeply sorry. The reason I stepped aside this week was to acknowledge that failing, and to make space for a new editor-in chief and a new generation of leadership at Refinery29 who can forge a path with an even deeper commitment to our original mission."
When Vice Media announced last year that it was acquiring Refinery29, Dubuc sent a memo to staffers in which she acknowledged the seemingly mismatched company cultures. Vice is the notoriously edgy hipster outfit that was the subject of a 2017 New York Times article exposing toxicity and sexual harassment scandals inside the company, while Refinery29 is a fashion site aimed at progressive women and promoting diversity and inclusion. "[H]ow can the 'bros' ever mesh with the feminists of Refinery?" she asked.
But 60 current and former Refinery29 employees who spoke with CNN Business over the course of a lengthy investigation painted a picture of a culture that actually fit quite well. The issues at Refinery29 were not limited to ones around race, they said. Refinery29's official mission is for women to "claim their power," but the video team was led by a male manager who, three former female staffers allege, verbally abused them in public. Refinery29 promotes stories about self-care, but 23 employees said overly ambitious traffic demands made them feel chained to their desks, and others said it kept them from taking vacations. Refinery29 tells women to ask for more money, even publishing a book that dealt in part with the subject, but 27 staffers said they were underpaid or restricted from raises.
"When people talk about the cultures not meshing it's astonishing to me because from what I can tell the cultures are very similar," a former editor said. "[A] culture that's about corporate excess and workers being treated terribly, that's Refinery."
Refinery29 had started as a fashion and beauty blog. But over time it evolved into a site that included coverage of women's issues, pay gaps, and sexual harassment, among other topics. In 2016, it launched The 67% Project, a campaign to promote female representation of "all shapes and sizes" by highlighting the population of women "who are defined as plus size." Money Diaries, a reader-generated column, challenged women to speak more openly about salaries and money management.
Many of the sources who spoke to CNN Business about their experiences at Refinery29 said they had joined the company enthusiastic about being part of a brand dedicated to women's empowerment. But once inside they were shocked by a workplace that seemed at odds with its public image.
"Walking around that office when I worked there, it was very white, very straight," a former producer said. "That always bugged me. It's not what I expected. It's not that they didn't believe in the message, but the talent needs to reflect the content they are producing."
Nikki Tucker, a former social media editor, said, "Refinery was really touted as that millennial place of inclusivity, where women are celebrated. You're not shamed for your body. It felt right up my alley. As a black woman in America, there aren't really too many spaces for me to be at a place where inclusivity is celebrated — at least, so I thought."
Kristin Booker, a writer on contract at Refinery29 in 2014, recalled that she was one of only a few black people in the office when she worked there.
Ford worked at Refinery29 in 2017. She "would spend a lot of time in office late," she said, and the people who were "most likely there, still working ... were black women."
"When I talked to those women about how much money they were making and what their expectations were and what their relationship was like with their superiors, it became very clear to me that I was being treated differently and I didn't want no part of that," Ford said.
In 2018, Refinery29's staff was 69% white and 8% black, according an internal diversity survey obtained by CNN Business. According to updated numbers provided by Vice, Refinery29's staff as of June 9, 2020 was 54.42% white and 10.7% black. These numbers are comparable to at least some of Refinery29's competitors', according to publicly released data. In 2019 BuzzFeed US' staff was 7.7% black and Vox Media was 8% black.
Among those who spoke out publicly about Refinery29 last week were founding members of Unbothered, a sub-brand for black women. Current and former staffers who spoke with CNN Business frequently cited Unbothered, along with other similarly progressive, inclusive work like The 67% Project and The Anti-Diet Project as among the editorial projects they were most proud of and that were most celebrated internally. But getting Unbothered off the ground was a struggle, according to its founders.
"Creating Unbothered was a year-long journey that led to the strongest community of Black women I had ever seen at the company," former senior social media editor Alessandra Hickson said in a statement to CNN Business that she then posted on Instagram over the weekend. "But it was also, unfortunately, one of the hardest years of my life thanks to a toxic culture that left me emotionally drained."
Hickson wrote that she "observed other colleagues, usually Black and Brown women, be subjected to tone policing, pay disparity, and open verbal abuse."
Sesali Bowen, a former senior entertainment writer and a founding member of Unbothered, also spoke out online and in an email to CNN Business.
"I thought it was a privilege to be getting exposure and experience across different areas of the company. I thought I was uniquely valued," Bowen wrote in the email. "In hindsight, I believe I was being tokenized as a fat Black woman and underpaid for my work."
Bowen said Barberich once "ran her fingers through my hair" as she complimented her new hairstyle. CNN Business corroborated this account with an eyewitness who said the incident happened out in the open where others could see.
In her statement on Thursday, Barberich apologized for this, saying "I am truly sorry if this happened and if she felt uncomfortable in any way."
She also apologized for confusing Ford with another woman: "I could have certainly called her the wrong name. If I did, I sincerely apologize," she said.
Publicly, Refinery29 touts the success of Unbothered, but several of its founding members told CNN Business that the company initially had been resistant to the idea. Former producer Ryen Williams, who was laid off in 2018, recalled frequent meetings she had with Amy Emmerich, Refinery29's chief content officer, about the need for more content created by people of color. Eventually, Emmerich helped the founders settle on an Instagram profile separate from Refinery29's main account that became Unbothered, which has since grown to a full vertical with a newsletter and a tab on the site.
"In addition to being segregated, we were told that we wouldn't be given resources to create," Williams told CNN Business. "After it took off ... the company realized that Unbothered could be monetized and that's when they started to care."
On Thursday, Emmerich issued a statement about the launch of Unbothered, saying, "When we start new franchises we start small, with a soft launch, and ask ourselves 'what would resonate with the audience?' [Hickson] was instrumental and the only full time staff with one freelancer. However we used shared services from across the company -- from photo, design and video. In 2018 [Hickson] left -- and since then Unbothered has grown to 4 dedicated staff and 1 freelancer."
Raven Baker, a former associate social media editor for Unbothered, said she left the company due to burnout. She had repeatedly brought up to management concerns about low morale and team issues, she said, to which the company responded by changing staffers' seat assignments.
"Unbothered is supposed to be a safe space for black women on the internet. How is that when it's not even a safe space in the workplace?" Baker said.
Unbothered continues to lack support at Refinery29. Several former and current staffers told CNN Business that the Instagram account is primarily run by an intern making $15 per hour.
Emmerich sent a memo to staff on Thursday, apologizing "to the many Black women and POC who have spoken out about the unacceptable culture at Refinery29 with courageous, raw and painful stories about their experiences. No qualifications, no excuses -- I am sorry."
She acknowledged that she "let our audience down" and vowed to be "more present" going forward.
Even after the launch of Unbothered, Barberich repeatedly made other editorial decisions that placed non-white women in the background of the site's coverage, or excluded them altogether.
In addition to the comments sources said she made about photos of women who were not thin and not white being "off-brand" and the list of acceptable celebrities sources said she kept that included only black celebrities who are light-skinned, one former editor who spoke to CNN Business said they had witnessed several instances in which Barberich picked photos of white people over ones that included people of color because she said "white faces" drove more traffic.
Another former editor and a former producer said they witnessed similar editorial decisions by Barberich. Barberich allegedly made some of these decisions based on A/B testing — a method used to compare two variations of the same content online to see which performs better with readers.
"White faces always got more clicks than brown or tan faces, which is the audience's doing, not the company's, yet the data always had the final say," the former editor said.
The producer concurred, saying, "Most employees pushed very hard for diversity on the site."
Before it became a digital media empire, Refinery29 started in 2005 as a niche fashion blog about independent shops in New York City. Its four cofounders -- Justin Stefano, Philippe von Borries, Piera Gelardi, and Barberich -- led it together until Stefano and von Borries, who bore the titles of co-CEOs, stepped away from day-to-day roles after the Vice acquisition.
Stefano and von Borries on Wednesday addressed the allegations in a post on the Refinery29 website, saying, "Even though we're no longer at the company, as co-founders and former Co-CEOs, at the end of the day the buck — and the culture — stopped with us."
"After having read these accounts, we recognize how our privilege as two white male CEOs created blinders that kept us from seeing the struggles, exclusion, and aggressions that you felt at R29. This is an earthquake of a wake-up call," they said. "We wanted to create an inclusive environment but didn't spend enough time with team members listening to them and hearing their stories."
The company evolved into a "rare haven for young women to be taken seriously," said one former staffer. Women, many in their twenties, wrote about fashion and beauty in their own voices and attended some of the industry's most high-profile events.
"The brand really, truly, was on fire," said Annie Tomlin, a former beauty director. "I have so many emails from people wanting to get a byline or photo credit there. Brands and publicists were deeply interested in being my friend because I worked there. It was the cool place to be."
But Tomlin, who started at Refinery29 in 2012, said that on her first day she left the office "in tears" when she learned the reality of the company's ambitious traffic goals. She had 12 years of experience in media and saw herself as a "very quick learner" but, she said, "the pace there was untenable."
"I felt like I was thrown into the deep end," Tomlin told CNN Business. "Even if you were doing everything you could, there were some factors that are beyond your control."
Ten staffers who spoke to CNN Business said management's relentless push for traffic was apparent in a constant stream of emails sent to the editorial teams to communicate how they were pacing relative to their goals. A former Refinery29 editor described the emails as "quite impressive and thorough" but added that "every time I saw that email arrive, my stomach would tighten because it could mean we suddenly had to scramble to make up for lost pageviews."
It's not unusual for publications to push for traffic. Advertising revenue depends on bringing readers to a site; hitting traffic goals can be the difference between a publication's thriving or dying.
But former Refinery29 staffers said they found themselves overworked by what they say were the company's overly ambitious traffic goals.
Some of the staffers who spoke to CNN Business said they saw traffic as a reflection of their own popularity. Three former writers said they would get reports that showed who was behind in hitting their traffic goals.
"Screenshots of articles were put up during meetings, and names weren't cropped out, so you felt the failure personally," a former writer said. "It sucked."
Booker, the writer who was on contract at Refinery29 in 2014, nicknamed it the "shame board."
One way that many sites keep a strong output of content to drive traffic is by picking up original reporting from other news outlets and rewriting it — known in the industry as aggregation. Another way is by monitoring trending stories from social media to see where readers' interests are at any given moment. These stories are often easy to produce, requiring little or no reporting and yet driving a significant number of readers to a site.
But Refinery29 wanted it both ways: they wanted the fast trending stories, but done as if they were another, more labor-intensive, kind of article. A former editor who spoke to CNN Business said their team of three reporters was asked to produce 12 to 15 stories total per day. Each of these stories was supposed to include multiple interviews, plus original photography or illustrations. That workload would be daunting even for a seasoned newspaper beat reporter, who, on a typical day, might produce just one or two stories.
The desire on the part of Refinery29 to create beautifully packaged stories with original reporting was admirable, but at least six former employees told CNN Business that the pressure from all of it led to burnout.
Booker said she typically wrote six to seven stories a day.
"I wasn't used to the feeling of if I left my desk for longer than a few minutes, somebody was going to come looking for me," Booker said. "If I wasn't at my desk looking like I was producing, I had to have a damn good excuse. It was terrifying."
Similarly, some staffers on the video team said they were under what they considered "aggressive" mandates for video views. Some producers would play Refinery29 videos on a loop at their desks to increase views, according to two former staffers on the video team.
In the pursuit of traffic, Refinery29 went from unearthing unique stories about fashion to chasing trending stories and celebrity news.
"I used to describe Refinery29 as Vogue in the modern era. After 2016, especially the last couple of years, it became more about selling so our content watered down...to a younger teen magazine," said a former Refinery29 designer.
Jess Rezendes, a supervising story producer, told CNN Business that the day she "realized that Refinery29 was full of sh*t" was when co-founder Gelardi sent an email to encourage staffers to write and generate traffic as a way to support "A Day Without A Woman," a strike that took place in March 2017 to protest President Trump's policies. Other female-centric sites, including Bustle and Teen Vogue, went dark for the occasion. New York Magazine's culture site The Cut also went on strike to support the cause. Gelardi did not ban staffers from participating in the strike, but Refinery29 kept publishing stories that day. For Rezendes, the email was disingenuous and showed what she called Refinery29's "hypocrisy" because she felt that it was self-serving for the company to be producing content rather than striking.
Refinery29 offered unlimited vacation as a perk, but some writers say the push for traffic made taking time off nearly impossible. According to five former writers, editorial staffers had to prep a minimum of one story for every vacation day they took, something not typically required of journalists in other newsrooms. At least two people said that this policy prevented them from taking time off.
The hope was that writers could complete the extra work between the business hours of 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., according to an internal email obtained by CNN Business. But that was not always possible, according to the five former staffers.
One former writer said after taking one sick day due to an infection, her manager asked her to "double" her output -- meaning at least four stories -- when she returned the next day.
Barberich wasn't the only manager at Refinery29 who current and former employees accused of toxic behavior in interviews with CNN Business. There is also Stone Roberts, who was hired from Scripps in 2014 to help Refinery29 increase its video output. In a 2018 interview with Forbes, Emmerich, the chief content officer, cited Roberts as a "great partner" who "helped pave the road so when I got here at Refinery29, I could run." Refinery29 hired Emmerich in January 2015, also from Scripps, to help build out the site's video production.
Despite this high praise for Roberts, staffers on the video team said they felt demoralized by him. Three former staffers said he yelled at and insulted them in meetings when other employees were around. Two of those former staffers who were subjected to this abuse said he was "vindictive" when called out on it. One of those staffers said he lost his temper and cursed at them. This person said Roberts later apologized by placing a bottle of hard alcohol on her desk and muttering "sorry" as he walked away.
"To me, it wasn't an environment that's actually fostering female empowerment. It was fostering insecurity," the staffer said.
Roberts told CNN Business in a statement through Vice that he had "received extensive management training and coaching between 2015-2016 to address these issues."
But at a routine video team meeting in 2017, three witnesses said Roberts lashed out at the video team over an anonymous employee satisfaction survey about Refinery29's workplace culture. Some staffers who took the survey told CNN Business that they cited his behavior as a reason for their job dissatisfaction. In a packed conference in the New York office, Roberts "sits there and just tears into the entire team. 'You guys destroyed me. How could you do this to me?'" a former staffer in attendance told CNN Business.
A second former staffer who was at the meeting said, "We were all in there and he was clearly really upset and he addressed it and it was a weird vibe because it sucks to hear these things about yourself, but at the same time, how is this surprising?"
In August 2017, Roberts moved to Los Angeles to "build out the video team," according to reports. That's the "story we were all told," a former staffer said. What's not clear is whether Roberts was reprimanded or punished for language his co-workers found offensive. He is now the Senior Vice President and Head of Global Production & Operations at Vice Studios
Roberts said in his statement that he moved to Los Angeles "for family reasons."
Refinery29 has covered the gender wage gap and offered strategies for women to ask for raises. In fact, Refinery29 produced an editorial package, "The Secret Guide to Getting More," in December 2017 as a how-to guide on salary negotiations. It was billed as a "first step toward asking for what you deserve." But when nearly a dozen employees did exactly that, they said, they felt they were shut down.
One former writer told CNN Business that around the same time the guide was published, she was given a promotion, but it was only in title.
"Here you are telling readers they should ask for more, but you're giving me a promotion that is title-only," the former writer said. "The messaging we were constantly given is we're family. We'll take care of you. We're a family. But that's not the way you treat your family."
A former designer at the company said she was rebuffed when she took her pay disparity complaint to human resources after she learned that a male colleague in a similar role made more than she did. Another former writer said their manager offered a raise, only to revoke it later without providing a reason. A former editor said she tried and failed to secure a raise for a writer to match the salary of another writer with similar experience who was making $14,000 more. A former female employee said she had to threaten legal action in order to secure a raise to match what a male colleague in the same role was making.
"At the top level when I tried to fight this, they were all women, and no one really paid any attention to it. How is this possible here?" the former designer said.
Megan McIntyre, a former beauty director, said she discovered she had been making at least $30,000 less than her friends in similar positions at other publications. When she asked for a larger raise than the $5,000 bump from a promotion, she was turned down.
"The response at the time was along the lines of we can't give you this kind of raise because then we'd have to let other people go," McIntyre said. "That's the thing where they spent too much money and now they can't afford to pay you what you're worth."
Refinery29's biggest cash infusion came in August 2016 through a $45 million funding round led by Turner, a relationship that meant Refinery29 could expand its video footprint. (CNN was a division of Turner, an entity that now operates under the umbrella of AT&T's WarnerMedia, which owns CNN.) Refinery29 held a champagne toast to celebrate.
"That meeting felt like nothing could stop us, that our content was going to be on TV and Refinery29 was going towards world domination," said a former Refinery29 designer.
In December 2017, Refinery29 laid off 34 employees, about 7.5% of its workforce, and the company shifted to focus on "growth engines," including long-form scripted and unscripted video.
After those layoffs, Refinery29 employees began talking about unionizing to address the problems at the company. In January 2019, a few months after Refinery29 laid off dozens more people, 40 members of the editorial staff unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East. In December, Refinery29 staffers agreed to be covered under Vice's union.
"[Vice's] contract establishes salary minimums, which have been crucial in bringing those who were underpaid -- including most of our writers, editors, contractors and freelance writers -- up to industry standards," Leah Carroll, a member of Refinery29's labor management committee, said in a statement in May. "We also were able to secure annual cost-of-living wage increases and standardized job descriptions across the unit."
Carroll was one of at least 10 Refinery29 staffers who was laid off in June when Vice Media cut 155 jobs due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
For one former editor, her frustration over Refinery29's pay disparity stemmed from what she saw as the company's wasteful spending on the free snacks, kombucha on tap, happy hours and extravagant holiday parties she saw when she worked there.
"We'd hear how successful the company was, how we were profitable and bringing in revenue, and getting these massive advertising deals," the former editor said. "It was hard to see and hear, like, 'There's all this money! But you can't have any.'"