Sources claim G/O used a dress code to fire a queer employee of color – Business Insider
Business Insider spoke with 10 current and former employees at G/O Media. They felt that a newly instituted dress code was hostile to queer workers of color, including the longtime events planner Victor Jeffreys II.
Employees said the new management advertised for Jeffreys’ position soon after Great Hill Partners acquired the company in 2019, ultimately hiring a new events planner three months before firing him on New Year’s Eve.
In the meantime, G/O had instituted a dress code that some employees believe was weaponized against Jeffreys, who they say was disproportionately reprimanded for violating it.
G/O Media declined to comment on the details of Jeffreys’ termination but defended its record on diversity, saying it “strives to be an inclusive and accepting corporate environment, in which all employees are treated with respect, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, or age.”
At about 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Victor Jeffreys II received an email from G/O Media, his employer, saying he was fired.
In the termination letter, which has been reviewed by Business Insider, G/O Media said it had terminated the longtime staffer for violations of multiple company policies including its “Standards of Conduct.” It said these included his “unprofessional conduct” and unspecified further “violation of company policy,” but current and former G/O Media employees pointed to a new dress code that the company had reprimanded Jeffreys for breaking multiple times.
A few of Jeffreys’ former colleagues described him to Business Insider as a hardworking, dedicated colleague who was good at his job — which Jeffreys said focused mainly on planning sponsored events — and as someone who would perform tasks outside his job description if it helped the office as a whole.
He was also a happy guy with a positive aura, who created a welcoming environment for employees of all backgrounds, many of them said. His extroverted, visible presence in the newsroom, they said, allowed other queer and minority employees to feel as if they belonged. Multiple sources say Jeffreys was widely liked internally, even beloved.
In an interview, Jeffreys said that he was lucky to be born with a “happy gene” and that it took him until college to realize many people his age “had depression and went to therapists.” Jeffreys said he remained upbeat throughout his adolescence, and that continued when he got his first full-time job seven years ago, when Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, hired him onto the website.
But he said he never experienced so much anger and anxiety in his life as he did in the past year, starting when the $2.7 billion private-equity firm Great Hill Partners bought Gizmodo Media Group from Univision. He said his mental health deteriorated amid what he described as a different work environment under Great Hill Partners’ ownership for him, one Jeffreys believed was on account of his identity as a queer employee of color.
“I was so angry walking into the office,” he told Business Insider. “I would just feel terrible. One of my friends actually had to stop seeing me for a while, just because I was so aggressive.”
The turmoil that followed G/O Media’s acquisition by Great Hill Partners has been widely reported, including by rogue G/O Media staffers themselves, such as when the entire staff of G/O’s Deadspin website first revolted and then quit en masse after editorial leadership barred them from covering political and social issues. The site’s editor in chief, Megan Greenwell, in resigning a few months earlier, had written an article that accused G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller of bullying reporters, herself included. The Columbia Journalism Review reported on how the change in culture accompanying Great Hill’s ownership culminated in the Deadspin staff’s mass resignation, and on Jeffreys’ New Year’s Eve firing, but not the circumstances that led up to it.
Business Insider spoke with Jeffreys as well as 10 current and former employees at G/O Media, most of whom requested anonymity. All said they felt that G/O management’s new dress code had unfairly targeted queer employees and employees of color. Nearly all shared the belief that G/O Media weaponized that dress code against Jeffreys in particular.
“I am a smart, articulate, queer, person of color,” Jeffreys told Business Insider. “I was harassed and ultimately fired by a former employer for some combination of those characteristics.”
Great Hill Partners did not respond to requests for comment.
G/O Media asked that its emailed statement be printed in full:
“We do not comment on private employment matters, and decline to do so in this case. That said, we note that the factual claims are riddled with inaccuracies. G/O Media has a firm written discrimination policy that we adhere to. Additionally, we are very proud of the work we have done around diversity since the inception of G/O Media and under the current Executive Leadership Team. To date, 64% of our hires have been diverse hires, many of which are members of the LGBTQ+ community and hold senior roles within the organization. Overall, G/O Media strives to be an inclusive and accepting corporate environment, in which all employees are treated with respect, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, or age. Additionally, we note with concern that the author of this piece knows Mr. [Jeffreys] personally which we believe casts doubt on the objectivity of the piece.”
(Editor’s note: The author of this piece interned at Jalopnik, a Gizmodo Media Group website, for 10 weeks in 2017. She did not interact with Jeffreys during her time at the company and spoke to him for the first time when reaching out for this story.)
G/O appears to replace an employee coworkers say was competent and well-liked
Jeffreys said before Great Hill Partners bought the company, he had been involved with planning sponsored parties including The Root 100 Gala, The Deadspin Awards, podcast launches, site birthday parties, and the company holiday party. Employees praised the work he put into planning events and the year-end party. Two of them said Jeffreys had put on successful events for their websites, procured sponsors, and coordinated launches effectively and without any issues.
Jeffreys also assumed other responsibilities, like taking employee headshots and managing communication between the business and editorial sides of the company. He used to moderate employee all-hands meetings every month.
Greenwell said the sponsored company events were “very profitable” and called Jeffreys a “genius” planner. Aside from his main job, she said, he would routinely check in with her if she seemed to be having a bad day. She said if she needed him to get something done, he would do it.
Greenwell said G/O management took away job responsibilities from Jeffreys that “everybody knew he could do better than anybody else.”
Jeffreys said he tried to welcome Spanfeller as the incoming CEO after the Great Hill Partners’ takeover by offering to guide him through the company’s culture and give him advice on how to run all-hands meetings. But Spanfeller rejected his advice. “Fast-forward a month, month and a half, they actively started to target me,” he says.
In a May 2019 email, which was reviewed by Business Insider, Spanfeller removed Jeffreys as moderator for the employee all-hands meetings.
The following summer, Jeffreys said, G/O management asked him not to plan some events, including the company holiday party he had planned every year prior. Then management appeared to begin trying to replace him altogether.
In about August, employees said, G/O Media had externally begun hiring for the role of event planner. According to LinkedIn, Deborah Appel began working as event manager at G/O Media in September, about three months before Jeffreys’ termination.
Jeffreys said he was sent the job posting over Slack by another coworker, and he estimated that the position encompassed 70% to 80% of his responsibilities at the time. The employees who spoke with Business Insider said they viewed it as a move to oust him from the company.
Spanfeller “could have used me to help him,” Jeffreys said. “He chose to feel threatened by me because I am not like him. And he chose to harass me.”
Spanfeller did not respond to requests for comment.
A new dress code some say was disproportionately enforced
Months after Spanfeller demoted Jeffreys from mediating the all-hands, G/O Media introduced a new employee handbook featuring a new dress code on August 15 that barred employees from wearing crop tops and shorts, previously common in a laid-back office culture. Employees said that prior to being taken over by Great Hill Partners, the company didn’t have a mandated dress code.
In the 2019 handbook, reviewed by Business Insider, the dress code barred employees from wearing “sweatpants, exercise pants, Bermuda shorts, short shorts, biker shorts, Mini-skirts, beach dresses, midriff tops, and halter tops.” Staff members said they pushed back against this, and G/O revised it to ban only exercise clothes, shorts of any kind, and midriff tops. Multiple employees said Jeffreys was known to wear crop tops, shorts, and heels, like other staffers.
Though Jeffreys said he had never heard G/O management say anything outwardly racist or homophobic toward him, he suspected that his identity as a queer person of color had to do with why G/O reprimanded him for his dress-code violations and affected its decision to terminate him.
“We had a very diverse set of employees,” said a former staff member, who was not in the editorial department. “I will say the dress code felt very discriminatory towards queer people and nonbinary-identifying folks.”
Institutionally, some surveys and studies suggest dress codes can unfairly target LGBT people and people of color.
In one 2017 survey of 23,001 students across the US, just 38.9% of LGBTQ students felt their school dress code or school uniform allowed them to wear clothes that matched their gender identity. And a 2018 report from the National Women’s Law Center finds that Black girls are disproportionately targeted for violating school dress codes in Washington, DC.
The New York City Human Rights Law prohibits employers from requiring dress codes “that impose different requirements for individuals based on sex or gender.” Though companies can impose a gender-neutral dress code, enforcing it against individuals that don’t conform to sex stereotypes is a form of discrimination under the NYCHRL.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights told Business Insider that “The reason this is prohibited under our law is because having different standards for workers based on dress or grooming based on gender doesn’t serve a legitimate purpose, it doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s ability do their job, and it is based off and reinforces outdated and harmful stereotypes.”
“There were a lot of discussions around the dress code, because the first thing many members on the editorial side were worried about was the way that dress codes can be weaponized against women, people of color, marginalized folks, and queer folks,” one staff writer said. “We mentioned that I think several times at meetings that this was a concern for us. That input was never really taken in.”
To some, G/O Media’s dress code appeared trained on one employee
All employees interviewed said they thought management went on to punish Jeffreys in particular for violating the dress code.
Jeffreys estimated he was spoken with about the dress code “at least 10 times.” No other employee who spoke with Business Insider said they had been spoken with about the dress code more than once.
Employees said many acted in opposition to the dress code by continuing to wear shorts and crop tops.
Jeffreys’ repeated reprimands for dress-code violations appeared to him to be such an obvious feature of the G/O Media offices that he went out of his way to comment on it. For example, Jeffreys once wore home-designed clothing to work featuring the statement “I am harassed at work.” Another time, he said he hung a homemade sign above his desk that read “targeted.”
One former staff member who was not in the editorial department said Jeffreys might have been disproportionately reprimanded for breaking the dress code because he sat on a different floor than most of the writing staff, and the rest of the business staff didn’t break the dress code as much as editorial did.
The same staffer said they felt that Jeffreys wasn’t specifically targeted, and that he was reprimanded more than others because of his visible and vocal opposition to the policy. But the employee also said they felt the dress code was “discriminatory,” and that queer people generally got “reprimanded more” for violating it.
Jeffreys and multiple LGBTQ employees said they felt that G/O Media’s human resource department had created an unwelcoming environment for them. This was exemplified by instances like the staff-wide meeting when, two staff members recalled, the Head of People Angela Persaud was unable to properly recite the letters “LGBTQIA.” One staff member recalled Persaud laughing it off and suggesting that other staff members knew what she meant.
“She was unable to recite this very basic term which at this point is kind of common knowledge,” said one current staff member. “That certainly felt insensitive.”
Persaud did not respond to requests for comment.
Jeffreys said G/O Media moved offices after the Great Hill Partners takeover, and management moved his desk from being near Deadspin writers to be closer to his direct boss, and therefore closer to the human-resources department.
Other staff members said they went out of their way to provoke management over dress-code violations but were treated differently than Jeffreys.
“I repeatedly broke the dress code — I will also say I knowingly and willfully broke the dress code,” a current staffer said. “But I got the feeling they were using it against Victor.”
A longtime former staffer recalled wearing shorts once during an elevator ride with Spanfeller and the CEO saying nothing to him at the time. He didn’t follow up with any kind of reprimand, either.
“The dress code felt explicitly targeting how Victor dressed,” one staff member said. “When it started being hotter in the summer, the only thing Victor wears is shorts and crop tops, and the only person penalized for wearing shorts was Victor.”