Michelle Ebanks; Richelieu Dennis. Michelle Ebanks, left, and Richelieu Dennis speak at the 2019 Essence Festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, in New Orleans2019 Essence Festival - Day 2, New Orleans, USA - 06 Jul 2019

After initially strongly denying allegations that management had long mistreated staff at 50-year-old Essence magazine, executives at its parent company appeared to stage a quick about-face.

Owner Richelieu Dennis has stepped down from the chief executive officer’s position and the company has launched an investigation into the damning claims of a “poisonous” workplace environment for Black women. Caroline Wanga, who only joined Essence on Monday from Target Corp. as its new chief growth officer, has instead suddenly found herself serving as interim ceo, overseeing the investigation into the man who hired her.

The reshuffle comes as a direct result of an anonymous essay titled “The Truth About Essence” that was published on blogging site Medium over the weekend and subsequently went viral.

In it, a group calling itself Black Female Anonymous and stating they are present and past employees made a number of allegations against executives at Essence, whose target audience is Black women, and calling for the immediate resignation of Dennis, Essence Ventures board member Michelle Ebanks, chief operating officer Joy Collins Profet and chief content officer Moana Luu.

The group also urged advertisers AT&T, Coca-Cola, Chase Bank, Ford, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Warner Media to immediately eliminate all active or future sponsorships and media buys at Essence Ventures until the company is under new leadership.

“The Essence brand promise is fraudulent. The once exalted media brand dedicated to Black women has been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power,” the essay said.

Black women, who make up more than 80 percent of the company’s workforce, are systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism, the essay claimed. It also alleged that scores of talented Black women have been either wrongfully laid off or forced to resign from the company in the past two years.

As for Dennis, who acquired Essence in 2018 from Time Inc., the blog alleged that he has “a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff,” the parent company of Shea Moisture he sold to Unilever in 2017. It added that for the women who don’t seemingly consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events, although it did not state if that was at Essence.

The essay also revealed that in the latter half of 2019, Dennis tried to force Essence employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements, but when staff raised questions about the NDA, the executive leadership team launched a series of intimidation tactics.

In addition, it stated that the fact that Dennis’ wife, Martha, is the company’s head of human resources is a “blatant conflict of interest.” “Martha is complicit in her husband’s abuse of power,” it said. “For Essence employees under Dennis family leadership, there is no possible way to share your grievances or frustrations when the family matriarch is the head of h.r.”

And then there’s Ebanks, who stepped down as ceo earlier this year, but remains on the board. The essay recalled a town hall in 2019 when some employees asked about pay raises. Her response was to point to the door and told staff they could leave if they could find better compensation elsewhere.

When the blog first came out, Essence was quick to firmly deny the allegations, calling them “unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character” and adding that “there have been no claims to respond to or any evidence of such defamatory accusations.”

But just two days later, it took action. In addition to the departure of Dennis, the company said in a new statement that it was in the process of hiring lawyers and other independent external experts to assess and review the company’s policies and practices.

“At Essence, we remain committed to fostering a safe, transparent and respectful workspace for everyone,” it said. “Our decision to commission an independent review is to ensure the ongoing trust of our communities and employees.”

In a letter to Wanga published on Instagram, Black Female Anonymous called on her to explain Dennis’ future involvement in the business, remove Ebanks, Collins Profet and Luu by Friday and publicly reveal the names of the law firms it has hired and prove that they do not have a pre-existing relationship with Dennis. They also want her to quickly release an action plan, detailing how she plans to make Essence a safer place for Black women to work.

At Target, Wanga was its top diversity and inclusion executive.

Editor’s Note: Essence responded to request for comment one day after publication. A spokeswoman said: “There was no interim ceo at Essence Communications, Inc. (ECI), following the departure of Michelle Ebanks on March 31 until Richelieu Dennis appointed Caroline Wanga to this position on July 1. As owner, Dennis helped to lead the team along with the ECI senior leadership team, but never took on the roles or responsibilities of CEO. So he never stepped down from, resigned from or was replaced in any role.”

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