CBS Employees Voice Concerns About Strategy, Transparency in Town Hall

Joseph Ianniello - Getty - H 2018
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One staffer asked what would happen to the $120 million in severance money that is being denied to former CEO Leslie Moonves.

Simmering tensions boiled over during a "live blog event" on Tuesday afternoon that gave CBS employees the opportunity to ask tough questions of corporate executives like interim CEO Joe Ianniello and chief people officer Laurie Rosenfield, who had billed the event as "part of our ongoing organization-wide dialogue about CBS’ workplace culture."

"CBS News has been under siege by scandal for more than a year," one employee said in the employee forum, as conveyed to The Hollywood Reporter. "Almost as maddening as the relentless embarrassing headlines has been the lack of transparency from management. ... What lessons has CBS management learned over the last year about the need for corporate transparency and accountability to employees?"

After listing examples of the "turmoil" roiling the company, including the termination of business- and news-side executives for misconduct, a different employee asked: "How will the CBS leadership keep morale high and [incentivize] the employees?"

One employee encouraged management to renounce non-disclosure agreements "in cases of accused sexual harassment or retaliation," a comment/question that was up-voted at least 38 times by other employees.

The board of directors of CBS announced on Dec. 17 that an outside investigation concluded that former CEO Leslie Moonves could be terminated "for cause" and should not receive a $120 million severance payment. On Tuesday, an employee asked Ianniello how that $120 million would now be spent.

"Our priority is to continue to invest billions of dollars into the company in the form of our people and content," the exec responded. "That's the priority today and moving forward. Separate from that, there is an ongoing legal process regarding the $120 million that is yet to be determined."

Some of the toughest questions in the digital forum went unanswered, though Ianniello and others responded to some thorny inquiries.

The board of directors has not publicly released the results of the investigation, leading one CBS employee to ask: "Is the board considering releasing the full findings, or at least more detail about what investigators found, to either employees or the public?"

Another question, submitted by a senior employee who is well-respected, asked why the news division employs so many "full-time" freelancers who do not receive staff benefits like health insurance and paid vacations: "What is the justification for not offering them staff positions?"

Ianniello addressed several business strategy questions, and conveyed to employees that the company is headed in the right direction and has a strategy in place, whether that includes mergers and acquisitions or not.

When asked by an employee about reports of a potential tie-up with Viacom, Ianniello responded, "We appreciate that this question is on the mind of many employees and we understand why."

While not specifically addressing the possibility of a reunion with the CBS sister company, he said: "No one can predict any future mergers. What I can tell you is that we are well-positioned for the changing media landscape. We have a great organic growth story here at CBS and our focus is on building a Premium Global Content company distributed on all platforms. We are focused as a management team on driving that vision forward. Any merger should be additive and will be decided by the Board of Directors."

Another employee asked if CBS needs to "merge or acquire another media company in the next five years" to remain viable in the industry. "Today, CBS is well-positioned as a premium global content company," Ianniello said. "With any M&A prospectively, I expect to build on that foundation. We have a team of people out there with their ear to the ground looking for any and all opportunities."

The digital forum continued on Wednesday. A CBS spokesperson declined comment.