News & Politics

Don't Stop With Morris Dees: Former Employees Told SPLC to 'Clean House at the Top'

Don't Stop With Morris Dees: Former Employees Told SPLC to 'Clean House at the Top'
Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen discusses a SPLC federal lawsuit against the Alabama Accountability Act during a press conference in Montgomery, Ala., Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

On Thursday, the far-Left smear group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced it had fired its co-founder, Morris Dees. It will also submit to an external review of its work environment. According to Glassdoor reviews going back to 2016, however, former employees have demanded that the SPLC “clean house from bottom to top,” with many demanding the ouster of its current president and CEO, Richard Cohen.

“Above a certain level, the upper management is incompetent,” a former employee wrote in March 2018. “They treat non-lawyers like objects and don’t care for feedback or criticism. People are afraid to criticize upper management. Office culture is neglected and thus, turnover is high.”

That reviewer encouraged the SPLC to “clean house at the top and include lower level workers in logistical and office wide decision making.”

In February 2018, another employee wrote that “some managers are disorganized and have unreasonable expectations for employees, leading to extremely long work days, no weekends, and very little control over personal lives.”

Not all of the reviews were negative — the SPLC has a 3.2-star rating out of 5 stars — but even the very positive reviews revealed management problems.

One current employee gave the organization 5 stars in October 2017, but that worker gave this advice to management: “Do a better job of empowering rank and file.”

A September 2017 review gave the SPLC one out of five stars, claiming the organization had lost “focus on the primary reason.” Instead, “the main concern is raising more money, and maintaining the top rated platinum standard brand. Very elitist and a bit out of touch.”

This reviewer also noted “a profound lack of diversity in higher level roles,” even though “there are well qualified people of color who’ve dedicated up to and over 12 years to [the] mission of the organization.”

These complaints echoed previous exposes from the Montgomery Advertiser, revealing that the organization did not promote black employees. This review also echoed the criticisms that the SPLC has become a fundraising outfit, inflating the numbers of “hate groups” to line its over $500 million in assets.

According to the anonymous reviewer, “none” of the SPLC’s “extraordinary wealth … goes into the community or employees — in terms of livable salary. There are no ongoing community outreach programs. Zero interest in engaging the community or creating valuable and continusous programs to help the community.” The former employee also said “personal development is sparse.”

In April 2017, a former administrative assistant wrote that “the work environment is toxic.”

In January 2017, a former employee who spent more than a year at the SPLC warned of multiple problems. While “all SPLC practice areas … have a disproportionate effect on black and brown people … such a small percentage of black and brown people are employed on the Legal team at SPLC (two Black lawyers and three Black Advocates within a staff of about 100 across five states).”

“Toxic work environments lead to low retention rates,” the reviewer added. “High turnover rates are a direct reflection of poor management and lack of opportunity/upward mobility.” The review also reported on “the mismanagement and mistreatment of employees.”

This former employee told the Board of Directors, “Time to clean house. Senior leadership has caused and allowed the toxic environment that permeates the entire organization to go on for long enough.” Twenty-four Glassdoor users found this review “helpful.”

Another former employee who worked at the SPLC for more than three years also gave the organization one out of five stars in January 2017. “Horrible work environment. Management is only interested in raising the organization’s media profile to drive up donations,” the former employee wrote, complaining of “micro management” and a lack of support for employees.

“Clean house from top to bottom,” the reviewer advised management. “Hire people with real life experience instead of ivy league grads. Practice what you preach.”

In March 2016, another former employee who worked there for more than a year agreed that “internally the environment is toxic. No room for advancement.” This Glassdoor review urged management to “make changes within Sr. Management so the staff and work can grow.”

In January 2016, a former employee who worked there for more than ten years explicitly advised the SPLC board to fire Richard Cohen. “The best advice would be to the board. A new CEO,” the reviewer wrote. “I’d bet you’d find 85 percent of the staff with the organization do not trust the correct CEO.”

Another January 2016 review also explicitly demanded that Richard Cohen step down.

“Upper management is the worst I have ever seen in over 40 years of working. Managers fight among each other, stab each other in the back to get ahead, and talk about each other like dogs,” the former employee wrote. “The are currently conducting a pogram of firing or demoting employees over the age of 40. … One department fired four women over the age of 40 in one day.”

“This organization has the most toxic atmosphere of any I have ever encountered,” the reviewer wrote.

In the “advice to management” section of the Glassdoor review, the former employee declared, “It’s time for Richard Cohen to step down. Over a quarter century of his leadership has resulted in the organization losing its moral compass.”

“Richard contributes greatly to the toxicity of the organization,” the review continued. “The organization cares more about raising money than anything else. The amount of money they rake in, is totally out of proportion to the work that they do.”

Will the external review the SPLC is about to undergo reveal a “toxic work environment” like these former employees have reported? Will the report demand the resignation of Richard Cohen?

The bad news for the SPLC is far from over. Even before the organization decided to purge its co-founder, it faced multiple lawsuits from organizations it has unfairly demonized as “hate groups” on the same list as the Ku Klux Klan. Last year, the SPLC paid $3.375 million in a defamation lawsuit for calling a Muslim reformer an “anti-Islamic extremist.” That settlement encouraged about 60 organizations to consider defamation lawsuits of their own.

Another recent lawsuit set its sights directly on the SPLC’s tax-exempt status. Baltimore attorney Glen Keith Allen claimed that the SPLC destroyed his life and work reputation by using stolen documents. He also claimed the organization engages in political activism, in direct violation of its tax-exempt status. The SPLC is taking his lawsuit seriously, hiring a high-powered attorney to defend itself.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.