During a hectic week that involved Washington’s NFL franchise changing its name after 87 years — which followed an already chaotic month that was supposed to be vacation time — coach Ron Rivera found himself repeatedly answering one question from family, friends and media: What did you get yourself into?
A report by The Washington Post that would reveal 17 women (15 who previously worked for the Washington Football Team and two reporters who covered the team) alleging sexual harassment and verbal abuse, was hours from being released.
Even in the eye of the storm — anticipation of the report had been building for days — Rivera remained adamant about his desire to be Washington’s leader.
“I’m here for the long haul,” he said.
That’s good, because Washington’s turnaround will take time. Rivera, 58, inherited an organization with a toxic culture that extends beyond what The Post reported. It encompasses employees, past and present, who have said they felt undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated. Meanwhile, the fan base is exhausted by the controversies and tired of losing.
Many of the issues were attributed to owner Dan Snyder’s longtime top lieutenant, Bruce Allen, the former team president who was fired after the 2019 season.
In comes Rivera, who was credited with developing a good atmosphere while with the Carolina Panthers, the team he coached for eight-plus seasons (2011 to 2019). He affected the culture there in how he dealt with his players and everyone in the organization; he plans to do the same in Washington, where he has assumed Allen’s role as the No. 2 person in power, behind Snyder.
“There are certain rules and certain attitudes I want to make sure everyone understands as we go forward,” Rivera said. “I want everybody to think before they do anything, ‘Is what I’m about to do going to help us win?’ If you pause for a second and think about that, it helps give clarity.
“One thing that I learned from playing for [Chicago Bears coach] Mike Ditka is that you want to create an atmosphere where you take ownership and are more invested in it and work hard for it.”
Rivera will have to reach Washington’s players, coaches and front office to turn the tide. Snyder’s approach has not worked, as proven by the franchise’s two playoff wins since he bought the team in 1999 — and none since 2005.
“Ultimate authority and ultimate responsibility ultimately rests with ownership,” said Amy Trask, who spent 30 years with the Oakland Raiders organization, the last 16 as their CEO — the first woman to serve in such a role in the NFL.
But it must be emphasized at the top in order for it to matter.
“What I found in my career,” said Scott Mautz, a former Procter & Gamble senior executive who is considered an expert on analyzing toxic work cultures, “is that it starts with culture. … The ones that don’t get that it starts with culture are the ones that have the toughest time.”
This past month has been, as Rivera said, frenetic. He has helped Snyder with the franchise’s name change, dealt with investigations into the sexual harassment allegations that led to two firings and one retirement, and started the most unusual training camp of his career amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I went through a range of [emotions] because so many things were going on from renaming the team, from having to deal with some of the social issues that came up,” Rivera said. “I had some great conversations with Mr. Snyder about things, very positive things and some tough things we had to discuss. It helped me to get the scope and understanding and feel for the things we need to get taken care of to get it done the right way.”
As he works to make meaningful change in Washington, Rivera has a lengthy to-do list:
Multiple ex-employees said the reason they left the organization stemmed from feeling disrespected. They went years without raises, they said, and believed management viewed their positions as low-paying two- or three-year jobs. They said they believed management thought they should be thankful to be with the franchise.
Not every NFL team gives bonuses to its employees, regardless of which side they work, but after Washington won the NFC East in 2015, the football side received bonuses. Those on the business side received an NFC East champions ball cap. One ex-employee said when a coworker asked about a bonus, the reply was, “For what?”
Another example of the divide in Washington: The football side can eat in the cafeteria; the business side cannot. Not every team allows all employees to eat in the cafeteria, but this adds to the feeling of not being appreciated in Washington.
One source said this topic was broached often with Snyder. The person said it was a “huge source of class divide” and that Rivera could look like a hero if he gets this changed, even if it means they have to eat after the players are finished.
Employees would sometimes talk to counterparts at other NFL teams, swapping tales of woe. The stories from Washington almost always topped those from other NFL teams when it came to salaries and bonuses or where they couldn’t eat their lunches.
“That’s when we’d realize this isn’t how it goes,” said one former employee.
It caused frustration and, eventually, turnover. Shortly after the 2018 season ended, more than 40 employees left the Washington organization.
“In the long run,” one ex-employee said, “you’re spending more money because of the turnover than if you do the right thing.”
Connect with team employees
This will be difficult for Rivera to achieve on his own; he was hired to win games, and that’s where he must devote his energy. If he doesn’t win, any attempt to rebuild the franchise’s culture will be short-lived.
But being accessible is something employees, past and present, say is needed.
“Ron needs to handle football,” one former employee said. “They need a relationship person that everyone can rally around, that can give people a pat on the back and a kick in the pants. It’s not that hard. It has the potential to be a special place.”
When Joe Gibbs returned to Washington for a second stint as coach (2004 to 2007), he would go through the building after victories to congratulate employees on the business side because he wanted to develop an inclusive atmosphere.
Rivera said that is something he did with the Panthers.
“First and foremost is to be seen,” Rivera said. “I used to cross over to the business side all the time, even if for only two minutes. I would stop and talk to the receptionist every day. … Just being around and connecting with people and talking with them and letting them feel they’re a part of this.”
Rivera, who was in Carolina when owner Jerry Richardson was forced out after workplace misconduct, knows his words have impact; he also knows it will be important to listen.
“I really want an open-door policy,” Rivera said. “A lot of those things occurred [in Carolina] and people were afraid to speak up. … I don’t want an atmosphere where people are afraid to tell the truth.”
Make everyone feel important
An oft-told story about former Washington coach George Allen goes like this: In 1977, he gathered the non-football staff a day after losing to the New York Giants. Allen, who had a sign on his desk that asked “What are you doing now that’s going to help us win?” asked the switchboard operators if they knew why Washington had lost. Allen told them, “Because you didn’t answer the phone as good as the Giants.” Allen went through a number of workers, telling each one the Giants’ employees had performed their tasks better.
A week later, Washington beat the Philadelphia Eagles and Allen gathered the employees again. When one worker congratulated Allen on the big win, he replied, “No, congrats to you. You’re the reason we beat the Eagles.”
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Trask said when she was with the Raiders, she would have staff meetings — some featured ice cream — and preach why every job mattered. She would tell the groundskeeper, for example, if the crew slacked off and didn’t fix a divot and a starting cornerback got hurt because of it, they would be contributing to the team losing.
Mautz relayed a story about an interview he once did with Mark Shapiro, then the president of Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team. Mautz wanted to know the key to the franchise’s success. Shapiro told him Cleveland took pride in the “mission fit.”
“He sat down as president of the organization with interns that broke down tape and walked them through how they fit in the mission of the organization,” Mautz said. “It starts with leadership for sure, but it has to be an unending mission that enrolls troops from the ground up.”
Some wonder if things will ever change under Snyder. Over the years, whether it was scouts during the draft or workers in their communications department, people said their work was ignored or their voices weren’t always heard.
“I don’t want an atmosphere where people are afraid to tell the truth.” Ron Rivera, Washington coach
He has a 21-season track record. Rivera is the seventh head coach Snyder has hired, and Washington owns the NFL’s fifth-worst winning percentage (.423) since Snyder bought the team in 1999. In contrast, from 1971 to 1992, Washington went 18-10 in the postseason with five Super Bowl appearances and three championships.
“The challenge [Washington] has is they have to act fast, aim high and be obvious,” Mautz said, “but enroll employees along the way, because they’re so damn skeptical because they’ve been mistreated for so long.”
Expand the HR department
Washington hired Hillary Fox in January 2019 as a human resources manager, reporting to chief financial officer Stephan Choi. But those who have worked at the facility said more needs to be done — especially for a business with more than 220 employees that is addressing the fallout from sexual harassment allegations.
In a 2018 study, Bloomberg Law concluded a human resources department should have 1.5 full-time employees per 100 workers. By that math, Washington should have two more full-time human resources employees.
Former employees said they didn’t always feel their voices were heard and issues weren’t always addressed, as The Post story detailed. After that story published, other employees said they, too, faced similar situations. An internal investigation led by attorney Beth Wilkinson could unearth more — and lead to further changes from within the franchise and from the NFL.
When a former longtime employee was asked what needed to change at the facility, the quick response: “No. 1, there needs to be a robust HR department with policies that are shared and understood. … There needs to be an ongoing plan for staff training and also a review of people’s accomplishments or challenges. There’s none of that.
“It was never articulated how you would be considered for increased compensation. It doesn’t have to be onerous, it just has to be clear and transparent.”
Add diverse voices
Trask, now an analyst for CBS Sports, is quick to credit late Raiders owner Al Davis, who hired the first minority coach to win a Super Bowl (Tom Flores) and the league’s second Black head coach (Art Shell). Diversity matters.
“When that is coming from ownership, that’s a powerful message,” Trask said.
In the 1980s, Trask, then a junior executive, said that at the end of one practice a beat reporter yelled out to former Raiders great Gene Upshaw, who was in attendance, “What’s it like having a girl work for the team?”
Trask hasn’t forgotten Upshaw’s reply: “She’s not a girl, she’s a Raider.”
Because of the emphasis placed on diversity by the Raiders, Trask said she didn’t encounter what female employees said they did in Washington. And, Trask said, she was viewed not on basis of gender, but as someone who could get things done to help the organization.
She said companies that lack diversity hurt themselves. One way to repair old habits is expanding hiring searches, another source of frustration with Washington.
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“By definition, you’re eliminating vast swaths of people who could help your business,” Trask said. “Organizations, entities, government, society is better when it incorporates diverse perspectives — and that’s not simply a gender issue.”
Washington made strides in this area during the offseason. It has conducted internal town hall meetings to have more voices heard and has a minority head coach in Rivera (one of four in the NFL). Julie Donaldson was recently hired to be a senior vice president of media and content, making her the highest-ranking female executive in the building.
Rivera has spoken at the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum multiple times and hired a full-time female coaching intern, Jennifer King. The football staff, both coaching and in the front office, now has a diverse racial makeup.
Rivera’s daughter, Courtney, works with Washington’s social media department, and his wife, Stephanie, is a former WNBA coach who serves as a sounding board and more.
“A lot of my conversations with Stephanie, it’s always about inclusion,” Rivera said. “Stephanie acts as my conscience on things.”
Donaldson, hired a week ago to oversee the broadcast operation, said she spoke with many people inside and outside the organization before leaving her job with NBC Sports Washington. She said she spoke with Nancy Hubacher, a vice president of sales and marketing who is in her 21st year with the franchise, and also spoke to Snyder’s wife, Tanya.
“[Tanya] was very clear to say she was horrified [by the report in The Post],” Donaldson said. “Every woman in this building was horrified about what was going on, and it’s this dark cloud over it. She wants people to be proud of this organization. She wants to do her work without having to explain everything that’s going on.”
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Like Rivera, Donaldson knows change is not an overnight process.
“You can’t just come in and say I’m going to wave a magic wand and change that,” Donaldson said. “We want to bring the women together and to have a safe environment and say, ‘Let’s have an open discussion about this,’ and to say, ‘OK, now we can tell our male counterparts where we come from, what we want and help educate them on that.'”
After the Dallas Mavericks were the focus of sexual harassment allegations in 2018, exposing a toxic culture, team owner Mark Cuban hired Cynthia Marshall to become the NBA’s first Black female CEO.
After their failings, Mautz said the Mavericks were “determined to be the gold standard of inclusion and diversity. If you have a toxic culture, you have to plant a flag in the ground that you want to be the exact opposite of that.”
The flag Rivera is planting in Washington signals his desire to restore pride, improve diversity, eliminate harassment and face challenges head-on.
“We need [all the employees] to understand they may not be in the middle of what we’re doing, but they can help us push forward,” he said.