Insider Source; Alyssa Powell/Insider
- An Australian Rokt employee shared a photo of a colleague in blackface, shocking colleagues.
- Rokt’s leaders responded to the incident, but many employees felt they didn’t go far enough.
- The episode, and other claims involving drugs and sexual remarks, raise questions about the company.
Employees at Rokt were shocked when an employee shared a photo of a colleague in blackface during a Zoom meeting in 2020.
The Zoom meeting, a company-wide get-together, was held just a few weeks into COVID-19 lockdowns. An employee shared the photo, from an event in 2012, that appeared to show another employee in blackface and dressed as Michael Jackson.
A handful of workers expressed their dismay in the meeting’s chat box. “Did my eyes just see what it was?” recalled one of more than a half-dozen former employees who told Insider they saw the photo. “It was almost like you were seeing a naked picture.”
Elizabeth Buchanan, the company’s chief commercial officer and the wife of CEO Bruce Buchanan, acknowledged what had happened in an all-staff email sent out that night and later viewed by Insider. She included brief apologies from the person pictured as well as the person who presented the picture, who happened to be related to a cofounder of a previous iteration of the company. Rokt said that both employees completed a session of unconscious bias training with an expert facilitator, who also held a session for the whole company.
But Bruce Buchanan doubled down. Current and former employees recalled him saying at a later all-hands meeting that blackface — a racist performance from the Jim Crow era where white performers colored their faces to mock Black people — was not a big deal in Australia, where Buchanan and the offending employees are from. Buchanan denied saying this.
Rokt CEO Bruce Buchanan.
“We were all, in America, like, ‘We don’t need to learn about blackface from you,'” the second former employee said. Buchanan said this criticism was based on a mischaracterization of his remarks.
The incident was one of several that Insider learned about when interviewing more than 30 current and former employees of the e-commerce company, which was recently valued at $2.4 billion by investors.
Interviews with dozens of employees painted a picture of a “family business” that’s been slow to mature. Some said that Rokt executives engaged in or tolerated misogynistic conduct, as well as excessive drinking and drug use, and resisted holding employees accountable for alleged bad behavior.
One lawsuit brought by a former employee alleged a co-founder encouraged female employees to get their “beach bodies” ready ahead of a company retreat. The company denied all of the claims but paid an undisclosed sum to settle the case in 2019, according to court filings. Another woman’s lawsuit claimed the CEO told her he’d like to see her in a bikini. Buchanan denied saying that.
Rokt, which sells e-commerce marketing and advertising tools, focused on post-transaction sales, to big companies like Disney, Domino’s, and JCPenney, says it’s on track to go public.