Havas Chi: One former employee’s experience

I never thought I’d tell this story.

Well, I never thought I’d tell it in writing. I’ve told it plenty of times while swapping stories with colleagues in the advertising industry. Responses have ranged from sighs of empathy to slight horror, but one reaction I’ve never seen or heard from a listener?

Surprise.

Another story that’s been failing to drum up surprise in my industry is one that was published by AdAge this week, detailing Havas Chi’s recent response to criticisms of Jason Peterson and the culture he’s helped create there (Havas Chicago confronts anonymous employee mudslinging with art installation).

Like any good lede, this one says it all: “Havas Chicago is responding to negative comments made about the agency and its employees on anonymous industry app Fishbowl with an anti-bullying-themed art installation and a brochure that encourages disgruntled employees to look elsewhere.”

To characterize criticism of a company or person’s behavior as “bullying” — particularly a company and person with so much power and no lack of history of impropriety — is a joke that seems more remnant of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing than Monica Lewinsky’s anti-bullying work.

Tatia Torrey, Havas Chi’s president and chief client officer, said that the installation and brochure were meant to “[encourage] our staff to talk to us openly if they have real issues, and quite frankly, to consider their choices in their work.”

I spoke openly. I had “real issues.” And I made my choices about my career.

Here’s a bit of my story.

An employee of Havas Chi for about a year, I witnessed much of the culture lambasted in the anonymous Fishbowl posts. And, perhaps naïvely, I thought I could effect some kind of change by going through proper channels—using my name, my voice, and my experiences with one person whose behavior Havas employees past and present might recognize.

The screenshots and transcriptions below are of emails I sent to HR in 2014. Both the recipient of the emails and the person whose behavior I complained about were much, much higher up in the company than I was. I never received a reply, and the eventual solution to the problem amounted to me switching desks.

To: [redacted]/CHI/NA/BU1@GS
From: Katie Knish/CHI/NA/BU1
Date: 11/24/2014 11:32AM
Subject: music problem
Hi,
My name is Katie Knish, and I sit on the fourth floor by the southwest corner of the building. At the end of our row of desks, the music that is played throughout the building (i.e., in town hall and in the lobby) is playing rather loudly at a coworker’s desk. As a great deal of the music selection is uncensored rap, often referring to “bitches” and violence, particularly toward women, I find it to be a heavy detriment to my productivity and comfort as an employee (especially a female one). For the sake of my ability to work, I would prefer that the music selection be changed.
If there is a more formal way to make this complaint, please let me know.
Thanks for your help,
Katie Knish
To: [redacted]/CHI/NA/BU1@GS
From: Katie Knish/CHI/NA/BU1
Date: 11/24/2014 12:08PM
Subject: Re: music problem
Hi,
Thank you for addressing the music situation so promptly. I am sending this follow-up to let you know that the employee in question said, in reference to my email, probably, that “some chick had a problem with the hip-hop.” I know that he was unaware that the complainant was within earshot, but I find it inappropriate for anyone here (particularly someone in management) to refer to a coworker as “some chick,” which is both sexist and dismissive.
Thank you for your time,
Katie Knish
To: [redacted]/CHI/NA/BU1@GS
From: Katie Knish/CHI/NA/BU1
Date: 11/24/2014 12:38PM
Subject: Re: music problem
Hi,
In regards to the song that was just playing, “Beg for It” by Iggy Azalea, the aforementioned employee said, “What’s she going to cry about now? Bitches talking about bitches?”
Clearly, this kind of language and the implied accompanying attitude toward women (and toward the comfort and opinions of Havas employees) does not make for an ideal working environment for anyone within earshot.
Thank you,
Katie Knish

My name was just as prominent on those emails as it is in the byline of this article. There was no anonymity to speak of.

I spoke openly — and remember what ultimately happened: I was moved to a new desk, where I wouldn’t have to hear coworkers who outranked me talk openly about bitches.

I worked with some of my favorite former colleagues at Havas. There’s no shortage of excellent people at that company.

But the culture, respect for employees, and many of the behaviors mentioned on Fishbowl then and now did not live up to their excellence.

And yes, Ms. Torrey and Mr. Peterson, I did as you so flippantly suggested.

I consciously uncoupled.