Awards Business News Industry People Legal Top Stories

Recording Academy begins mediation process with its ousted CEO

By | Published on Friday 21 February 2020

Deborah Dugan

The US Recording Academy has formally begun a mediation process with its ousted CEO Deborah Dugan, according to multiple sources who have spoken to Billboard and Variety. To what extent that will result in any public scrutiny of the allegations raised by both sides remains to be seen. It seems unlikely the Academy will want too strong a spotlight focused on its inner workings, though a closed doors deal is unlikely to repair the reputation damage already done.

Dugan, of course, was hired by the American music industry organisation last year with a mandate to shake up the Academy and its annual Grammy Awards, and especially to address the various diversity issues that had been raised in recent years. But just before this year’s Grammys she was put on “administrative leave”, supposedly because of a complaint filed by an executive assistant who accused the CEO of bullying.

Once pushed out, Dugan hit back big time. In an explosive legal filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission she set out a long list of allegations against the Academy, its board, its committees and its legal advisors, who were variously accused of corruption, misogyny, financial self-serving, sexual harassment and vote fixing.

There was then a side-dispute over whether Dugan could take her grievances to court or if she’d be forced to accept private arbitration instead, as her employment contract insisted. The Academy declined to free its former CEO from the arbitration commitment, but said it had nothing to hide, and that it would be happy to relax the contract terms relating to confidentiality, providing both sides would be equally free to present their arguments in public.

Dugan’s legal reps questioned the independence of any arbitration process, given the Academy would choose and pay the arbitrator. They also said that arbitration was particularly inappropriate when sexual discrimination had been alleged, as in this case. But the Academy refused to budge, hence the arbitration route being pursued, and the mediation process now being underway.

At the heart of that mediation process is the termination of Dugan’s employment contract and the accompanying financial settlement. Gossipers say that both parties had actually got close to reaching a deal on all that before she was put on administrative leave and the very public war of words began. But the Academy then backtracked on the negotiations and offered a much lower financial settlement at the last minute, resulting in the dispute going public.

That said, so wide-ranging and damning were Dugan’s allegations, even if a deal can be done this time on contract termination and financial settlement, neither side looks great if they then immediately part company and carry on regardless with no further mention of Dugan’s criticisms.

The Academy has gone on a PR offensive in recent weeks, of course, disputing its former CEO’s claims and generally disparaging her approach to running the organisation. They’ve also started talking up once again the diversity task force that was set up by Dugan’s predecessor.

But – assuming the Academy’s current board and legal advisors aren’t willing to get out of the way and allow a new generation of leaders and advisors to take over – it seems likely that the organisation will have to do a whole lot more than a few open letters and some off-the-record briefings to repair the damage that has been done to both the organisation and its annual awards.