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Suns employee quits amid retaliation for reporting toxicity, misogyny in workplace

The 15-year Phoenix Suns employee says the workplace is only getting worse since the team got good again

Way back in November 2021, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes broke a long story with dozens of allegations of racism and misogyny (treating women worse than men) in the Phoenix Suns organization, with an emphasis on managing partner Robert Sarver.

Holmes article focused heavily on Robert Sarver himself, painting a picture of racist and miosgynistic behavior dating back 17 years, and so commonplace that Suns employees simply confirmed the allegations on the condition of anonymity (only former head coach Earl Watson and former assistant coach Corliss Williamson made statements regarding Sarver’s racism.

When it came to misogyny and claims of a toxic workplace culture, the issues did not stop at Sarver. They were allegedly rampant all through the organization, especially on the business side of the house.

From the basketball side, the players, front office and coaches have all gone out of their way to say that they have seen none of these allegations play out in front of them.

The business side is where the greater story is.

In response to the story, which included accusations from dozens of current and former employees sharing only under the promise of anonymity to avoid retaliation, the NBA opened a legal investigation into the Phoenix Suns organization to allow ‘shelter’ to the anonymous to share their experiences without fear of retaliation.

Holmes later reported that the NBA’s legal team made it possible for former employees to break their non-disclosure agreements in order to testify in the investigation. Many former Suns employees had been induced to sign agreements to keep their workplace stories to themselves in exchange for cash payouts upon separation.

The Suns organization claimed loudly, at the time, that their Human Resources (HR) department was fully empowered to investigate and resolve any claims of misconduct and that no retaliation would occur, but that no such complaints had been filed.

However, Holmes’ initial article included anecdotes that HR would actively discourage complaints, and quietly suggest the employee instead work toward resolving the issue themselves or fighting for a cash payout.

Multiple staffers said they would not go to HR with complaints because they feared retaliation. “That is standard in our company,” said a current business employee: “If something happens, don’t go to HR.”

Said another current staffer: “God no, that’s the last place you go. Yeah, definitely don’t go to HR with anything.” The first former Suns HR rep confirms that this sentiment was common throughout the organization.

“You want to do right by the employee and make sure that they’re not getting infringed upon,” the first former HR rep said. “But ultimately, you’re getting paid by the owner. So you’re the police. And there were some times where I told people, ‘You know, I’m not gonna tell you this on the record, and we need to go out to the parking lot or someplace, but I think you should sue.’”

When aggrieved workers said they had been considering legal action after being told that the organization would be parting ways with them, two former business operations employees said those people were often offered severance packages in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements.

More than six months later, the NBA’s investigation is still ongoing. No findings have come out at all, though Sarver’s presence has been minimal in recent months. When the Suns released a strange ‘we had a bad game, don’t hate us’ statement after the 33-point Game 7 loss to the Mavericks a few weeks ago, Sarver’s name was nowhere to be found.

Here’s a snap of the bottom of the letter to season ticket holders.

So either Robert Sarver is not in this together with us like James and Jason are, or he’s being minimized in the public eye due to this investigation.

Sarver has already retired from the executive chairmanship of his own bank after the bank conducted its own investigation into Sarver’s leadership and fitness to continue leading the way.

In January, as the trade publication American Banker first reported, (Western Alliance Bancorporation CEO and President Kenneth) Vecchione told investors on an earnings call that independent directors on the company’s board had hired an independent outside law firm, Munger, Toller & Olsen, to help conduct their own investigation “to evaluate Robert’s continued leadership role at the company,” Vecchione said on the call.

“The investigation is being directed and overseen by the independent directors and to be clear, is not the result of any allegations related to the company discovered by the Board or the NBA,” Vecchione continued on the call. “In addition, Western Alliance has and will continue to assist the NBA in an ongoing investigation as requested.”

So Sarver is out at the bank.

Will he soon be out of the Suns organization too?

Whether that happens or not, it appears the Suns organization needs a whole new leadership team — or at least a dramatically new attitude and mission with a zero tolerance policy — to save a toxic culture from spiraling even further out of control.

Holmes this week reported that an employee is now going public after resigning from the Suns... and apparently not signing a non-disclosure agreement like so many before her.

A longtime Phoenix Suns employee resigned from the team last month, alleging she became the target of bullying and retaliation by superiors after raising concerns about gender equity and misconduct within the organization, documents obtained by ESPN show.

Melissa Fender Panagiotakopoulos, who began working for the Suns in August 2007, sent a resignation email on May 20 to 16 members of the ownership group, including majority owner Robert Sarver, challenging them to address what she said is a toxic and misogynistic workplace culture.

The employee had complained to HR last November, less than a week after the article was published, that she could indeed confirm and was experiencing much of what was being reported in the article in terms of misogyny.

Since then, according to this employee who’d been with the Suns for 15 years, she only experienced escalating retaliatory behavior from the Suns management — which is exactly what was related to Holmes in the initial story (see my excerpt above, if you skipped over it).

In her resignation, Panagiotakopoulos referenced the November memo, writing, “Since that confidential interaction with senior leadership, HR and legal, there has been a consistent retaliation and bullying by my direct leadership.”

“Among other things,” she wrote, “they excluded me from client dinners, scrutinized my every move, decision, and email with excruciating levels of micromanagement.”

“My job has grown more intolerable and toxic than ever,” Panagiotakopoulos said.

While Robert Sarver was the target of the initial article written by Holmes, it appears the entire Suns organization — at least on the business side — is one of toxicity and misogyny.

Let’s see how all this plays out.

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