The 47-year-old actress filed a harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing in Los Angeles on Thursday, six months following her exit from AGT after one season. DFEH complaints are often precursors to lawsuits.
In the complaint filed by attorney Bryan Freedman and obtained by ET, Union also claims NBC Entertainment Chairman Paul Telegdy tried to “silence and intimidate” her. ET has reached out to Cowell, Fremantle and Syco for comment.
“Telegdy contradicted his statements to the media and personally disregarded NBC’s ‘Principles of Business Conduct’ (hereinafter, ‘Code of Conduct’) mandating confidentiality for workplace investigations by contacting Union’s agent and disclosing confidential information obtained during the ongoing investigation into Union’s concerns in an attempt to silence and intimidate Union from providing information to the investigator about her experiences,” the complaint alleges, adding that “on or about February 4, 2020, Telegdy threatened Union through her agent and warned Union’s agent that Union had better cease from pursuing her claims of racism while filming AGT.”
In a statement to ET on Thursday, NBC said, “The allegation that anyone involved in this process threatened Ms. Union is categorically untrue. We took Ms. Union’s concerns seriously, and engaged an outside investigator who found an overarching culture of diversity on the show. NBCUniversal remains committed to creating an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds are treated with respect.”
A Variety report published around Union’s AGT exit in November claimed that she had expressed concern about the show’s “toxic culture” to NBC’s Human Resources department.
NBC and Fremantle responded with a statement praising AGT‘s long history of “inclusivity and diversity” and said that Union and fellow judge Julianne Hough’s departures were part of the routine cycling out of judges on the show. However, Union’s husband, Dwyane Wade, claimed on Twitter that she was fired.
Union’s complaint comes a week after she opened up about her experience at America’s Got Talent.
In an interview with Variety, Union said the problems started right from her first moments on set, when show creator and judge Cowell smoked in front of her even though she’s severely allergic.
She claimed she addressed it with producers, who said that nothing was going to be done — even though it directly affected her ability to do her job.
“[I was] coming on to a set and you are literally met with the very definition of a toxic work environment, and it’s being carried out by the most powerful person on the production,” Union said of Cowell’s smoking. “I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight. It was a cold that lingered, and turned into bronchitis, because I couldn’t shake it. It impacted my voice, which affects my ability to do my job.”
In a statement to Variety, Cowell’s spokesperson said that when he was made aware of the smoking complaint during the first couple of days of the season, he “immediately changed his behavior and the issue was never raised again.”
Union also called out alleged race issues with AGT, including her shock when she said guest judge Jay Leno made a racist joke.
According to Variety, the comedian made the joke when referring to a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. Additionally, Union described her dismay during another incident, when a white male contestant — whose talent was to transform into famous singers, including costume changes — put on black gloves to imitate a black singer.
The actress said she was shocked that the audition was allowed to happen.
Union said that she struggled with the decision to speak out about her concerns.
“I had to look at myself and say, ‘Do you want to keep it easy? Or do you want to be you, and stand up?’” she recalled. “Because I’m not the only one being poisoned at work.”
“At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company,” Union added. “It starts from the top down. My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”
In January, Telegdy told reporters that the network may put “new practices in place” following Union’s experience at AGT.
“The duration long-term of a brand comes with the ebbs and flows of who comes, who goes and we proudly embrace making shows better. What we also proudly embrace at NBC Entertainment is the notion that we can always be a better workplace. So, what we are is in the middle of an investigation. That’s really serious, I can’t deny it. I’ve never had one before so… that will be handled by lawyers,” Telegdy said.
“We’re very confident that if we learn something… we’ll put new practices in place if that’s what’s necessary and take anyone’s critique of what it means to come to work here incredibly seriously,” he added.