The staff at Crisis Text Line staged a walkout to protest the racist and emotionally abusive culture and demand the resignation of the CEO, Nancy Lublin.
How could an organization dedicated to mental health harbor such toxicity?
Here’s my account of the situation, an experience I had to actively recover from after I left. Aftershocks still remain.
I can only speak about my personal experience working there, I will allow others to share their experiences — check out the #NotMyCrisisTextLine stream on Twitter for a sampling and read the Glassdoor reviews of former employees (just make sure to filter through the fake reviews left by volunteers who do not work inside of the organization).
I worked for the CTL from April 2015 through January 2016 as the Director of Training. I led a team of full time and contract trainers responsible for vetting and training volunteer crisis counselors. In my time there we trained over 2000 crisis counselors. For the first several months we shared an office with the DoSomething.org staff of which Nancy was also the CEO until Aria Finger was promoted to the role.
I was hired because I had this blend of mental health (Masters in Social Work) and tech/startup experience (Groupon).
During the interview I was asked if I was going to have a problem respecting and reporting to my future manager (Baylee Greenberg Feldman) because I was “significantly” older than her (I was 32). That was the first red flag.
At one point in the hiring process I took myself out of the running and they threw money at me and the promise of flexibility which I was clear was more important than compensation, as a mom of a three year old. I was excited to join the organization and believed in its mission (still do).
The culture resembled that of an emotionally abusive relationship. Nancy hired talented, motivated young people who were new to the workforce. She groomed staff with attention, praise, and spontaneous and public gifting of Veuve Clicquot champagne. I got an orange box delivered to my desk within two weeks of working there, which my manager told me was the quickest she’s ever seen someone get “champagned.”
Nancy groomed these young people with incredible levels of responsibility and access to opportunities — celebrity interactions, TV spots, speaking opportunities, and shared bylines on articles and books. What’s wrong with giving people opportunity? Nothing, except when it’s also accompanied by belittling, public shaming, and isolation. She methodically positioned herself as the caretaker to these young souls while simultaneously tearing them down so they believe they would be worthless without her, or worse be actively retaliated against.
As a mental health professional I recognized these red flags right away. At the time the staff was very small, there were a few people on the tech team, supervision team, and data and operations. The C-Suite was the CEO, CTO (Chris Johnson), COO (my boss, Baylee Greenberg Feldman), and the Chief Data Scientist (Bob Filbin). All had been groomed by Nancy from their days at DoSomething.org. Nancy was their first boss, and DoSomething.org their first place of professional employment — they were vulnerable, but also complicit.
I was a Director and highest person on staff with clinical responsibilities. I took this responsibility seriously. There were many occasions when I felt called to push back on the goals and tactics set forth by the executive team.
One of Nancy’s tactics was setting unreasonable expectations. My first week, I was tasked with launching the online training for volunteers within a week of starting. Launching this platform meant reviewing and editing all of the existing training content; writing scripts; compiling training modules with the content, voice, and graphics; training my team of contracted trainers to educate the volunteers going through the training; and importing this into a new online system that wasn’t even built yet. The training itself was 30-hours. I should have spent my first week taking the existing training and vetting the content with the current literature on best practices in mental health crisis response.
This is just one example of unreasonable goals set by the CEO and pushed by her executive team. When I put these goals in the context of reality I was told I was being negative and not hustling enough. More of this continued and I was quickly labeled difficult by Nancy, per a conversation I had with Bob.
I was responsible for hiring a staff of full-time trainers and growing the pool of contract trainers. When checking in about candidates Nancy asked me if any of them were black or brown. She would pop her head into interviews and give me the thumbs up on these candidates — she never spoke with them, just took a peek to see if they were not white, so that she could say she had a diverse staff. It was all about optics.
My team was awesome. Incredible people, smart, hardworking, compassionate, adaptable and open to the wild ride that is startup culture. As a senior leader and their manager, I actively worked to shield them as much as possible from Nancy’s abuse and unreasonable demands. Nancy would regularly undermine my role as a manager and didn’t consider my input when making decisions about promotions and special project assignments. At one point she decided to create rotating leadership positions that would change every few weeks/months. The white women on my team were the ones chosen for those roles, overlooking the black employees who I flagged as high potential.
I held meetings for this leadership team and it wasn’t until I was called out by a black woman on my staff that I was segregating people by race. As soon as this was called out to me I corrected it and moved to all team meetings to make sure everyone had a seat at the table despite their official leadership designation. I’m not perfect, but open to feedback. I own my mistakes.
I continually pushed back on the targets and goals that my team was responsible for so that I could 1) keep my team from burning out 2) ensure the crisis counselors we were turning over to the platform were prepared to deliver a quality service to our texters in crisis. I was always told no, the goals are the goals.
Throughout this time, I developed a set of personal KPIs to keep myself sane. I was willing to work hard for the mission that I believed in, but I was not willing to sacrifice my own mental health and well-being in the process.
I gave my team this same language and we had open discussions about what was most important in their lives and I encouraged them to keep those priorities front and center if they were going to stay in this field and at this organization. The content of working on a crisis hotline is stressful enough, adding the stress of operating in such a toxic culture made it exponentially worse.
Feeling fed up about the state of affairs and not getting anywhere by flagging issues and raising concerns, I helped the executive team design an employee engagement survey — The Happiness Survey. I thought an organization that prioritized data might listen to feedback if they knew the scale the complaints.
I encouraged my staff to take the survey and to be honest. I was expecting the results to reveal widespread unhappiness. When Nancy informed me of the results, I said “exactly as suspected, I hope this shows that I wasn’t making stuff up and we need to commit to real change here.”
Instead of taking a look inward at the culture of the organization, Nancy placed the blame on the individuals themselves. She decided to clean house of anyone who was unhappy.
She sent this letter giving people an offer to leave.
I saw this as the power move that it was. This wasn’t some innovative management move, this was about shutting people down and locking in a culture of assimilation. If you don’t leave, you have no choice by to stay and shut up.
This was also a set up to get me out.
Two days later Nancy and Baylee met with me and asked me what I thought of her email. As much as it pained me I told them that I was all in. I was planning my exit, but wasn’t ready to take the leap yet with a family to support.
Nancy told me she didn’t think this “restaurant” was for me and fired me. Baylee and Nancy said they’d make sure to keep it a secret and let people know that took them up on their offer (see how they use shame to control?) I told them I wouldn’t need that, I was not ashamed of being fired. They were the ones trying to cover something up — I was in good standing with the staff and felt I led with integrity.
I spent my last day preparing documents to turn over and meeting one-on-one with each person on my staff including the person who was assigned to take my role (another white woman). I encouraged them to keep their Life KPIs in mind and that the treatment from Nancy and Baylee and the complicity of Bob (someone else will have to tell the story of how he manipulated data to preserve Nancy’s ego) were not normal and they should never take any of the treatment personally as a sign of their character and potential. Just before walking out I sent this email to let the staff know that I did not elect to leave and I was fired.
I felt helpless. I was afraid of what Nancy might do to retaliate. I heard from staff that Baylee and Nancy badmouthed me to make an example out of me.
I made it out okay. My framework of Life KPIs kept me focused on moving forward and I recognized that my life immediately improved as a result of not having to deal with Nancy, Baylee and the toxic culture.
I still felt responsibility to my team. We stayed in touch and I was occasionally an ear to the stressors they endured. I encouraged them to leave Glassdoor reviews to expose the issues with the culture, of which I wrote one myself. It was not a campaign to shame anyone, but to effect change.
That’s what this current movement is about. Finally there is critical mass which makes it safer (but not totally safe) for people to speak out. I’m self employed, I don’t have to worry about what my current or future employer would think of me speaking out. Others are not in the same position. I have texts from a handful of former employees who say they are still afraid to speak out. It’s heartbreaking to read the testimony taking place on Twitter right now and how many are still recovering from the emotional trauma inflicted upon them.
One of the challenges for Nancy leading CTL in her usual style is that her staff is made up of mental health professionals who are trained to recognize the signs of abuse and are professionally obligated to speak out about ethical issues. When I was there a masters degree was required to be a supervisor overseeing the volunteers and texter conversations on the platform. Nancy changed the policy, in part I believe so that she could have a pool of younger people to control and groom.
I admit that I do feel validated by those coming forward to speak about their experience of racism and emotional abuse, a little joyful to see the collective action going down to hold Nancy and her enablers accountable. I take no pleasure in being a part of a mob to end someones career over a mistake — this isn’t one isolated mistake. This isn’t the kind of racism that we all have for being a part of a racist culture. We all have the responsibility to look inward and unlearn our racist beliefs and our role in maintaining white supremacy. Nancy’s racist behavior and emotional abuse was chronic. She was given plenty of opportunity to correct her behavior and seek rehabilitation.
- Situation — Nancy was in a leadership role at two nonprofit organizations filled with passionate, young, and motivated staff.
- Behavior —She abused, bullied, and discriminated against her employees for years. She was given feedback and failed to take that feedback into consideration or change her behavior.
- Impact — She needs to be fired and her enablers need to be held accountable.
I want CTL to be in better hands, its mission is too important.
I also hold empathy for Nancy. I can’t imagine the kind of abuse or treatment she must have endured in her life. We repeat what we know. Hurt people, hurt people. I hope that this experience serves as a wake up call to her, a reckoning, an opportunity to heal. She can’t salvage her role at CTL, I don’t even expect that she’ll be able to salvage a career in the nonprofit sector. But she’s an entrepreneur, she’ll figure something out.