ESPN Chief Writes Memo to Staff On Diversity Efforts Amid “Complicated” Personnel Dispute – Hollywood Reporter

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In a memo to staff, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro addressed the steps the company has made “to improve the experiences of Black employees at ESPN” and discussed the controversy involving two of the company’s key on-air NBA talents, Maria Taylor and Rachel Nichols.

“We respect and acknowledge there are a variety of feelings about what happened and the actions we took,” Pitaro wrote in the memo, which was sent to ESPN staff on Friday. “The details of what took place last year are confidential, nuanced and complicated personnel matters. But understand this – we have a much better story than what you’ve seen this week.”

“I do want to be clear on one thing: Maria Taylor was selected as NBA Countdown host last year because she earned it,” he added. “Please know our commitment is that assignments and opportunities at ESPN are based on merit and any concerns, remarks, or inferences that suggest otherwise have been and will continue to be addressed.”

Last week Nichols apologized to her colleagues and to Taylor, spurred on by a New York Times story which was published on July 4. The story included audio from a phone call Nichols had made with Adam Mendelsohn, an adviser to Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and James’ agent, Rich Paul.

In the leaked audio, which was recorded amid the novel coronavirus pandemic last year, Nichols complained about Taylor being selected to host NBA Countdown, the channel’s key pre- and post-game program. Nichols, who is white, suggested that Taylor, who is Black, may have gotten the job not because of her talent or experience but because the channel was looking to diversify its hosting ranks.

“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in the recording from July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

Pitaro’s memo indirectly responded to those comments, and addressed plans for the company to discuss employee concerns around diversity and inclusion going forward. “We plan to address diversity and inclusion at an upcoming ESPN town hall later this month, and we will continue to have focused conversations with the Black and African American community at ESPN in the coming weeks,” he wrote. “As always, we value an open and honest dialogue.”

He added that “we’ve begun a deep dive into the past year of exit interviews to understand any patterns and issues we can address.”

Pitaro’s memo was tied to an update around ESPN’s Black Employee and Consumer Experience initiative, which ESPN launched a year ago.

63 percent of ESPN’s executive leadership are women and/or people of color, according to the memo, and of the 116 new hires at ESPN this year, “52% are people of color and 42% are female.”

Pitaro also said that ESPN’s PULSE group (an employee resource group) had added some 200 members in the past year, a 40 percent increase. “That’s probably the greatest annual growth we have ever seen in an ERG,” Pitaro added.

“We invested heavily in this effort and we asked every employee – from the highest levels of leadership to those just starting with the company – to back this D&I plan. Everyone owns inclusion,” he wrote. “It’s the way you treat your colleagues, how you champion your team, how you welcome new ideas and people, and how you make others feel. Each of us is responsible for creating a culture and climate that thrives.”

“Change takes time, and I ask for your partnership on this journey,” he added. “Know that our leadership is committed to accelerating our efforts and working toward a collective goal – an ESPN where everyone feels they belong.”

You can read Pitaro’s memo below.

Team:

I am reaching out today knowing that recent events have left many of you concerned about our commitment to diversity, inclusion and belonging.

We respect and acknowledge there are a variety of feelings about what happened and the actions we took. The details of what took place last year are confidential, nuanced and complicated personnel matters.

But understand this – we have a much better story than what you’ve seen this week. Exactly one year after announcing the actions of the Black Employee and Consumer Experience (BECE) initiative, we want to make sure you are aware of the critical progress we’ve made…even though we know we have much more work to do.

Before I get into the details, I do want to be clear on one thing: Maria Taylor was selected as NBA Countdown host last year because she earned it. Please know our commitment is that assignments and opportunities at ESPN are based on merit and any concerns, remarks, or inferences that suggest otherwise have been and will continue to be addressed.

With the BECE initiative – a program designed to improve the experiences of Black employees at ESPN – we promised transparency in sharing our progress. I wanted to give a quick summary on our efforts to date:

Every function developed an action plan specific to their group with concrete measures of success and timelines.

Since we began offering the Inclusion & Belonging @ESPN training last fall, we’ve had over 96% of people leaders complete it and nearly 40% of individual contributors.

Strengthening and growing PULSE membership and influence is key to the BECE’s Culture pillar, and PULSE has added almost 200 new members this past year, growing their ERG 40% year over year. That’s probably the greatest annual growth we have ever seen in an ERG. Highly-engaged PULSE ERG members also helped us pilot the new Mentoring Circles program, which we just rolled out to all ERGs.

We started our second MORE mentorship cohort this fall, meeting our goal of over-indexing on diverse talent, with 47% of the 53 participants identifying as Black or African American.

We’ve begun a deep dive into the past year of exit interviews to understand any patterns and issues we can address. 

We’re seeing progress in our hiring numbers as a result of looking closely at our talent practices. Of the 116 offers accepted year-to-date, 52% are people of color and 42% are female.

63% of our executive leadership team are women and/or people of color.
 I highly recommend you take a few minutes to watch this video (taped several weeks ago) to get the latest update.

We invested heavily in this effort and we asked every employee – from the highest levels of leadership to those just starting with the company – to back this D&I plan. Everyone owns inclusion. It’s the way you treat your colleagues, how you champion your team, how you welcome new ideas and people, and how you make others feel. Each of us is responsible for creating a culture and climate that thrives.

By being proud of this progress we’re not trying to minimize how people are feeling. If you have concerns, it is very important to raise them with your leaders, with your HR Business Partners, or with our Diversity & Inclusion team—we need your help. Our job is to support you and make ESPN the place we all want it to be – and we can’t do that if your concerns aren’t raised.

The goal of this note is to ensure everyone understands where we are at this moment and to know that we have an ongoing focus on improving, and a commitment to listening. We plan to address diversity and inclusion at an upcoming ESPN town hall later this month, and we will continue to have focused conversations with the Black and African American community at ESPN in the coming weeks. As always, we value an open and honest dialogue.

Change takes time, and I ask for your partnership on this journey. Know that our leadership is committed to accelerating our efforts and working toward a collective goal – an ESPN where everyone feels they belong.

Sincerely,

Jimmy

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