Netflix Settles With Executive Claiming Sexual Harassment

A former Netflix HR director accused the company of routinely "tolerating harassment and discrimination" by its executives. Netflix denies it, but settled a case.
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Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California.

Barry Coleman spent mere months at Netflix in early 2016, but it was enough to later allege that the company's "veneer of a perfect disruptive, progressive" business is an illusion. After he was fired, Coleman filed a lawsuit that, among other things, asserted Netflix has an unwritten policy of "tolerating harassment and discrimination" by its executives. Netflix then forced Coleman's claims into arbitration.

Recently, Netflix reached a settlement with Coleman over his $1.5 million claims and required him to stay mum about the dispute. Nevertheless, Coleman's story can now be told. Discrimination and harassment lawsuits tend to be personal and one-sided, and they are particularly tricky subjects to report on because such allegations can carry career-long consequences for those involved. But as Hollywood and members of the media continue to look inward in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and as lawmakers consider changes, including voiding non-disclosure agreements in instances of workplace harassment, more stories concerning hostile workplaces are coming to light. It should be noted right away that Netflix vehemently denies Coleman's allegations.

Coleman, 52, arrived at Netflix after working in the human resources departments of several large multi-national corporations. Netflix was apparently impressed enough by a presentation on how to do business in China that Coleman gave in March 2015 to later offer him a job. Barbie Graver, then the vp of talent at Netflix, recruited Coleman, according to court documents. She indicated interest in making him an offer in December, 2015, but three hours after the two spoke on the phone, Coleman experienced a tragedy. He learned his son had been murdered in Colorado.

Coleman said he experienced ongoing trauma and depression as a result of his son's death, but Netflix went ahead and offered him the position of director of employee services at a $500,000 a year salary. Graver allegedly told Coleman that she would accommodate his needs: "If you work at half your normal speed for the first six months, I'm okay with that."

Within weeks of his employment, though, Coleman said he was harassed and ostracized for being disengaged, supposedly not doing things the "Netflix Way," according to the complaint he would later file. 

Things got worse, from Coleman's perspective. He claimed a male superior in Netflix's talent group made romantic advances on him in April 2016 by speaking about a rendezvous with a handsome business executive and inviting Coleman along. "Being heterosexual, [Coleman] was uncomfortable with [the superior's] advances and attempted to keep some distance so as not to offend his superior," stated a complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. "However, the invitations to go out continued."

The superior allegedly responded to being rebuffed by gossiping to other employees that Coleman was arrogant and "not Netflix enough."

Coleman claimed he took it up with Graver, but no immediate investigation ensued.

"During [Coleman's] employment, Ms. Graver discussed her handling of a prior sexual harassment claim at Netflix," continued the complaint. "She told [Coleman] that the accused employee had a history of making inappropriate comments and had been warned on numerous occasions. Ms. Graver also told [Coleman] that many Netflix executives would make inappropriate sexual comments and that [she] was 'cool' with it, but understood that others may not be. Ms. Graver, in communicating these and other examples of Netflix unwritten policy of tolerating harassment and discrimination, made it clear to [Coleman] that he should not be 'over-sensitive' even when he was being harassed by his superior."

Continuing, the complaint adds: "Ms. Graver further made it a point to inform [Coleman] that she too engaged in sexual conversations and conduct that would be considered to be inappropriate from a sexual harassment perspective. Based on Ms. Graver's comments, it was clear to [Coleman] that a formal sexual harassment complaint against [the superior] would be futile."

Coleman alleged his employment situation continued to deteriorate and that he was warned about "becoming a meme" thanks to the office gossip. Graver changed jobs, and Coleman said her replacement had no interest in accommodating his psychological needs from his son's death. Ultimately, in May 2016, his employment was terminated. 

The lawsuit that Coleman would file discussed all this plus more that he gleaned from his time in human relations at Netflix. Some of the allegations don't appear to support any cause of legal action, but nevertheless are noteworthy.

For instance, Netflix has won acclaim for a policy allowing new parents to take one year of leave with their newborn children. But Coleman's complaint states, "The pressure to return to work remains strong and the vast majority of employees do not take advantage of the new rule, perhaps because they can sense what lies beneath. In HR executive meetings held behind closed doors, Netflix HR executives have repeatedly stated that if anyone did take advantage of the program, they would be pressured or asked to leave. They said that women in particular that take such time are not serious about their careers."

In response to the lawsuit filed in September 2016, Netflix conducted an investigation.

The streaming giant concluded that Coleman's departure was justified by months of inadequate performance, including that he was rarely in the office and made little effort to get to know his team or perform his duties. Netflix's superiors supposedly had a hard time keeping track of his whereabouts, and the investigation also concluded that he vacillated between being condescending to his subordinates and peers or not contributing at all.

As for Coleman's sexual harassment allegations directed at the superior, Netflix's position was that Coleman had misconstrued invitations to get to know a colleague.

Faced with claims of disability discrimination and sexual harassment, Netflix did what it has done in a handful of other cases it has faced on the employment front. It moved to compel arbitration. A judge agreed that the dispute should be put to the American Arbitration Association, where it didn't take long to settle. The Hollywood Reporter learned about the agreement after a review of records kept by the arbitration outfit. Coleman's lawsuit against Netflix was formally dismissed just last week.

THR reached out to Netflix.

According to a statement from the company, "Coleman was employed at Netflix for less than five months and was terminated for performance issues. He raised his claims only after termination. The company investigated them and found them to be baseless. The company resolved the matter before arbitration for approximately the standard severance Coleman was entitled to for being terminated."

A Netflix spokesperson also added that the allegation about the company's parent-leave policy is a "fabrication" and that statistics would show that new parents at the company routinely take up to a year off.

In response to a request, and in the interest of discouraging the publication of this story, Netflix initially agreed to waive Coleman's confidentiality obligations to allow him to provide any evidence corroborating his allegations. But it turned out he also had a non-disparagement clause and Netflix's waiver wasn't deemed sufficiently broad enough by Coleman's attorney to allow him to publicly present his case.  

As for Graver, who wasn't named as a co-defendant in the case, she recently took a job as Chief Culture Officer for one of Silicon Valley's hottest startups — GitLab, which helps software developers work together.

THR wanted to get Graver's comment so it contacted GitLab. A spokesperson later responded that Coleman's allegations concerning Graver were "categorically false" and "fabrications."

In a press release earlier this month, GitLab spoke about how Graver was joining to "lead progressive culture" at the company and quoted Graver as saying that her experience has taught her that "having the right people is more critical than having the right process or policy."

Jonathan Handel contributed to this report.

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