‘Bullying was day-to-day’: Inside Dragons’ Den star Steven Bartlett’s company Social Chain
A Tab investigation reveals ‘it’s very much a boys’ club’
Steven Bartlett is the latest (and youngest) member to join the BBC series Dragons’ Den. With a net worth of over £50 million, the Botswana-born businessman’s rise to fame started when he dropped out of uni and founded his social media company, Social Chain, in 2014.
Both former and current employees of Social Chain (SC), have exclusively revealed to The Tab that they felt as though the company has a “toxic” environment, filled with bullying, poor salary, discrimination, a cliquey “boys’ club” and people being “sacked for their mental health”.
After leaving Social Chain in 2020, Steven’s success continued through his huge personal brand – he released his bestselling book and started the Diary Of A CEO podcast. To his 1.6 million Instagram followers, Steven can be found dishing out advice on success and how to be better in business, friendships and even love. Just a few weeks ago, it was on Steven Bartlett’s podcast that Molly-Mae declared we all have the same 24 hours. Despite receiving plenty of backlash, Steven jumped to Molly’s defence.
Social Chain AG is a social media agency worth over £300 million. It employs over 850 people with offices in Berlin, Munich, London, Manchester, New York and Los Angeles. Apple, Amazon and Coca-Cola are just a few of the high-profile brands they work for.
They’re the company behind viral meme pages like Student Problems, which was run by its graduate staff in their Manchester head office. In 2018, two of its staff were caught making up a fake news story and posing as students in an attempt to go viral.
Steven has previously branded the company environment as “something special”. He’s said employees have “complete freedom”, an amazing work-life balance, and there is “no hierarchy”.
The Manchester HQ is kitted out with all the typical millennial cliches: a slide, ball pit, bar, table tennis and a puppy park. Social Chain promises various figure heads in the business such as a “Head of Happiness” and on-site counsellor.
However, when Tara* joined the company in 2016, this wasn’t what she found at all. Instead, she claimed, “the glorified playground for adults is a gimmick that is purely designed to distract from what is really going on.
“A modern office, tons of publicity and a name that looks incredible on your CV. But once you’re out, you see the darkness, the discrimination and the toxic leadership.”
As part of our investigation The Tab spoke to seven former employees of Social Chain and one current employee. Here’s what they had to say:
‘Bullying was a day-to-day thing’
According to Sam* who worked at Social Chain as a videographer, bullying was a big problem at the company. She told The Tab: “the cliques were awful, bullying was a regular day-to-day thing, and if you didn’t fit in with a certain group you weren’t seen at all.”
Tara* remembers an incident of bullying from her time at the company: “It was between a member of the influencer marketing team and a new manager on that team.
“I sat near the influencer team and often saw the manager belittle the staff member in the middle of the open plan office, shouting about her work, putting her under unnecessary pressure.
“At the height of this, the manager pulled the exec into a meeting room (which all had glass windows facing into the main part of the open plan office) and screamed in her face about her supposed attitude, reducing her to tears in front of the majority of the company.”
Katy Leeson, Managing Director of Social Chain told The Tab: “There is no HR record of any bullying ever taking place at Social Chain.”
‘Mental health is just a buzzword for them’
Between 2018 and 2020, Social Chain’s front men publicly announced their dedication to their staff’s mental health, with COO Dominic McGregor writing a piece for the Manchester Evening News headlined “Employers must ensure the mental health of their staff”.
Steven tweeted to announce their new “opt-out” counselling scheme for all staff, meaning that everyone received therapy unless they specified they didn’t want it.
Meanwhile, a few of the ex-employees The Tab spoke to said their mental health took a big hit while working there. Two former employees also allege they were sacked for what they believed was because of “mental health reasons”, whilst another said his depression and anxiety “spiralled”.
As the pandemic worsened and her mental health declined, Molly* claims she was sacked for having a personality disorder. She said she was fired after making one small error, but “when they sacked me, they said I wasn’t sacked because of the one asset that went wrong, but because of my personality. They knew pretty much every detail about my personality disorder and used it against me”, she alleges. “All of it happened over Google Hangouts and was extremely cold”, she said.
“They tried to not pay me the full amount after they sacked me, and I had to threaten to get a lawyer involved since they did it without notice. They just blamed it on my mental health. There was a short period of time where it seemed as though everyone who struggled openly got sacked at the same time. Social Chain drives people literally insane”, Molly* told The Tab.
Katy Leeson, Managing Director of Social Chain, denied this accusation and said: “Social Chain has a robust grievance procedure, a leading HR / legal process and we provide the opportunity for appeal in any termination situation. To date, we have had no appeals, grievances or complaints submitted from anyone that we’ve had to let go.”
She continued, “today, given the scale of the team we are at, we offer everyone a monthly therapy session through platform MindBerry so we could ensure everyone gets the same support we did (and I benefited from) in the early days – even with 130 UK employees.”
When Imogen* worked there, despite suffering with her mental health and communicating with her management team about it – she claims nothing was done. She alleges: “I was never asked if I wanted to opt out or remain in with that therapy scheme or whatever, and when I did ask for help I just felt ignored. I only knew the scheme existed because Steven shared it on his Twitter.”
Testimonies on company review site Glassdoor also make claims about poor treatment of mental health at the company. One even says: “Social Chain has grown too quickly and your staff’s mental health has suffered”.
Sam* also said she believed a few people were “fired because of their mental health.”
The Tab were able to acquire a Social Chain contract, which includes a clause about mental health:
Nicholas Lakeland, an employment lawyer at Laytons, told The Tab this is a standard form clause in employment contracts.
He said: “It’s intended to cover the situation where someone is ‘sectioned’ i.e. a doctor signs a certificate confirming that someone is so mentally ill they have to be incarcerated in a mental institution for their own or the public’s protection.
“The clause is not intended to allow an employer to dismiss an employee suffering from mental health issues short of insanity so someone who is mentally ill but not insane is protected by the Equality Act of 2010. If you treat someone less favourably or discriminate against them in whatever way including dismissing them then you are in breach of law and an employee can pursue a claim in the Employment Tribunals.”
None of the employees The Tab spoke to disclosed that they had been sectioned or incarcerated.
‘If you weren’t happy sniffing coke or doing balloons on a Thursday evening, you were pushed out of the group’
According to Rachel*, the culture of the office was “toxic” and built on one of exclusion. She said: “Let’s just say if you weren’t in the ‘club’, it wasn’t a very nice place to work.”
Tara* also said the pressure to get involved was “overwhelming” and described the atmosphere as “very much a boys’ club”.
She said: “With toxic masculinity lingering and an even more toxic atmosphere, it was no wonder why so many staff members looked tired, aggravated and often slept in the office to deal with workload (or simply to avoid getting a taxi home after partying).”
Another employee, Mark*, recalled an incident early on in his employment where Steven took a selection of people from work to Ibiza. He said “if you were part of the original crew then you were favoured massively. Otherwise, you’re irrelevant. It was just so cliquey.”
Steven Bartlett responded to The Tab’s request for comment, saying: “I went to Ibiza for my birthday in August about 4-5 years ago with 18 friends. The group consisted of my lifelong friends, founders from other companies in Manchester and friends from work. Social Chain did not pay for this.”
In response to the claims of drug use and party culture, he said: “There are no reports, evidence, or historic mentions of any drug being done in any Social Chain office, ever. There is no HR mention of drugs in the office and there are no historic records of any employee reporting drugs in the office to HR ever. Social Chain’s head of HR has confirmed that no employee has ever come to HR and mentioned drugs in the office. The office has 24/7 CCTV covering every corner of the space which was often reviewed if there was an incident.
“None of the directors do any kind of recreational drugs and of the two founders, Dom does not drink alcohol at all and is almost six years sober (he leads a sobriety community) and I haven’t done a recreational drug since I was 16. I can only assume that this relates to something out of work, out of hours and beyond our remit.”
‘I was 24 years old on a £16k salary, working 10-14 hour days’
Molly* joined Social Chain on a “very low salary” and said she only accepted the offer because they “promised me a raise that I never got”.
The problems continued throughout her time with the business as she claims there were “not enough employees”, “10-14 hour working days without any thank you or compensation” and what she felt was a “non-existent” HR department. “They just treat you like a workhorse”.
Sam* recalled that her employment ended when she was made redundant on a Tuesday afternoon, which she believed to be “out of nowhere”, along with four other people from the office. She said, “I was confused why I was being made redundant when the company was posting their yearly profits on LinkedIn amounting to almost £200 million”.
‘It was a complete boys’ club and I found the management to be discriminatory in more ways than one’
Many of the ex-employees we spoke to said they felt as though women were frequently overlooked in the company and were given far fewer opportunities than the men. Tara* said “there was certainly an air of sexism within the business.
“One man who started not long after me became a director by the time I left (this was a time period of four months). There was little room for progression if you were female or were willing to criticise any moves Steven made.”
Another current employee also said the office was “very much a boys’ club” and has “cliquey management teams”.
However, Steven pointed out that, at time of writing this, the company has 12 directors, of which 50 per cent are women, Katy, Rox, Noelene, Charlotte, Lauren, Sarah.
“Infact, every single managing director in Social Chain’s agency is a woman.”
‘Steven acts so ‘woke’ like he’s this new generation of business owner who puts his staff first, but in reality he’s the opposite’
Steven Bartlett, a multimillionaire at only the age of 29, has been enjoying the most successful few years of his life by focusing on his personal brand. He’s worth over £50 million and his podcast is set to make him £3.2 million this year alone. Steven’s been featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list and has won awards at the Black British Business Awards. Now, he’s bagged a much-coveted spot as a Dragon on Dragons’ Den, as the youngest judge ever.
Tara* told The Tab that when Steven was in the office, she felt as if he had “no respect for anyone”. She claimed that Steven once brought his French Bulldog puppy, Pablo, into the office before he was toilet trained. “He went to the toilet under my desk and Steven refused to clean up after his own dog. He made it out to be the job of other people.”
An anonymous review on Glassdoor also said: “They have dogs that run around the office (which yes it can be fun), however there were multiple times when a dog would urinate or leave faeces lying around when clients were in. Very unprofessional.”
Steven Bartlett denied this allegation and responded: “We had 10± dogs in the office and there has not been one occasion in my entire life that I have not picked up after my own dog – to me that goes without saying – I would often clean up and look after ‘Louie’ a dog owned by a colleague too who I had a close bond with and whom I adopted for a while when his owners moved to Australia, quite honestly, every single dog owner always cleaned up after their pets. On any occasion where a dog became distracting or was not toilet trained HR would address it accordingly.”
Tara also claimed that Steven “regularly spoke to people like dirt, with no remorse or apologies. He was the face of Social Chain but never actually looked like he did any work.
“We were the first to hear about awards he was up for and articles he’d been featured in where he spoke about the work of others without any recognition. He was incredibly entitled, rude and arrogant about his ‘achievements’, many of which he had no part in at all.”
Harry* also said Steven was “really antisocial and never spoke to anyone in the office.”
Steven responded: “One of the things I did at Social Chain was anonymous CEO feedback surveys. Those surveys never highlighted that I was ‘disrespectful’ or spoke badly to employees.
“The claim that ‘I never did any work’ is also difficult to understand – I filmed my life for three years every day on YouTube, and I think those videos and the fact that I spent 3 weeks at home in 2019 because of work, speak for themselves. My biggest issue was very much the opposite, I sacrificed too much for my work and paid the price for that.”
Sam* told The Tab: “Steve Bartlett is honestly the biggest hypocrite I’ve ever met. All of his LinkedIn and Twitter posts seem so ‘woke’ like he’s this new generation of business owner who puts his staff first, but in reality he’s the opposite.
“He just knows how to manipulate social media to make it look like everyone loves him.”
‘Social Chain drove me literally insane’
While many of the employees spoke about their problems when working at Social Chain, Tara* said a lot of these issues don’t come to light until you leave the company. “Most people within the SC bubble don’t seem to see the issues playing out in front of them and I was one of those people.
“A friend of mine and ex-SC colleague said to me that it’s like the staff are brainwashed and you don’t see the truth in what is happening until you’re out of the situation – this is something I wholeheartedly agree with.”
Names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals.
If you’d like to share your experience at Social Chain, or want to send us another story, please email [email protected]