Report: MAGFest Board Fires Staff And Volunteers In Response To Alleged Abuse By Executive Director
MAGFest staffers and volunteers have spoken out about alleged abuse committed by the event’s executive director, Paul Birtel. This has purportedly been enabled by members of the convention’s Board of Directors – which includes Joel Attanasio, Jack Boyd, Eli Courtwright, and Bunny Smith – for over six months.
Shir Goldbird – who has been working with MAGFest for over five years – took to Twitter in order to publicly disclose what has happened to them and several of their colleagues over the last 24 hours. You can view the tweet below, which also includes an official statement from Goldbird.
“Yesterday morning, three MAGFest volunteers (including me) and one of the MAGFest employees all got individual calendar invites for that afternoon from Paul Birtel saying he’d like to talk about our ‘recent activities,’” Goldbird tells TheGamer. “He fired one volunteer and the employee in those meetings, and myself and another volunteer by email when we couldn’t make the time he demanded.”
Goldbird explains that Birtel linked their termination to a supposed violation of MAGFest’s Code of Conduct, although no details of said violation were shared with them or any of the other people who were fired. The punishment for each of the three volunteers was that they would not be allowed to work at the convention for a minimum of three years.
“He then went on to say we would be banned from staffing indefinitely and even attending MAG for a minimum of three years unless we signed a ‘Separation and Release of Claims’ agreement that said we wouldn’t sue MAGFest or speak out against it further,” Goldbird says. “His emails to the employee offered four weeks of severance pay and two months of health insurance coverage contingent on signing a slightly different ‘Separation and Release of Claims’ document.”
You can read the email Goldbird received from Birtel in the three screenshots below.
“I’d like to offer you the opportunity to sign a document (Separation and Release of Claims Acknowledgement) which would allow you to re-register as a volunteer two years from the date signed and allow you to attend events immediately,” the email above reads. “I will be sending that document through ‘HelloSign’ following this. If not signed within the next two days you would be banned from staffing indefinitely (for a minimum of 3 years, pending the Executive Director deciding you are permitted to re-register as staff) and banned from attending any events for at least two years. Any breaches of the requests in the document before it is signed will void the offer.”
Birtel then sent an internal email to all remaining employees about “staffing changes,” before eventually posting details of the terminations in a public Slack channel that also included volunteers. Both messages concluded with a warning that MAGFest would be updating its policies in order to afford the execs and Board of Directors the power to immediately terminate anyone who engaged in “inappropriate” behaviour. The email specifically featured a section stating that the Board could not inform remaining employees of the reasoning behind the steps taken “due to HR and employee privacy laws.”
“Due to HR and employee privacy laws, we can’t share the exact reasons behind the steps being taken today, but they are not a result of these individuals’ participation in the Friends of MAGFest website,” the email reads. “The Board of Directors recognized that there wasn’t a clear policy in place prohibiting participation in a public display of grievances. As such, it was decided that participants would not be removed from the organization, and instead we will seek to utilize a neutral mediation through CRC Mediation that was referred to us by the SAFE subcommittee.
However, moving forward, we’re creating a policy that if any employee or volunteer uses MAGFest Inc communication channels to publicly attack, shame, or demand resignations from any group in the organization, they will be terminated from MAGFest, no matter their role.”
The public Slack announcement, meanwhile, pertained to the aforementioned “inappropriate” behaviour.
“Moving forward, MAGFest will be updating policies to include language with respect to the unauthorized and inappropriate utilization of MAGFest owned communication channels by any individual at any level of the organization,” the announcement reads. “‘Inappropriate use’ would include things like public attacks, shaming, demanding resignations, and other destructive behavior. Any individuals found to be involved in these types of communications will be immediately terminated from MAGFest no matter their role within the organization.”
According to Goldbird, the behaviour deemed as “inappropriate” was the initiative they ran alongside their colleagues at MAGFest designed to expose malpractice and abuse in the workplace. Goldbird states that Birtel himself is an abuser who has been protected by the Board of Directors despite repeated offenses of malpractice, and that every employee at the company filed a complaint against him to HR six months ago.
“Paul Birtel engaged in shaming, criticizing, and verbally attacking every employee and numerous volunteers,” Goldbird explains. “Much of this happened in private employee meetings, where he seemed to feel most empowered to act out and had a habit of making employees cry with his comments, but it also often spilled over into public Slack channels.
“My first interaction with Paul Birtel was when he posted a staff-wide survey looking to collect some data on how to prevent volunteer burnout,” Goldbird continues. “I’ve worked on a lot of surveys for my job, and left a couple of comments about how he could improve the methodology to get better responses. Instead of taking my suggestions at face value, he accused me of grandstanding, trying to shoot down his ideas, and being a complainer. When other staffers joined the discussion to try to get him to calm down and accept constructive criticism, he attacked them too, calling them ‘lacking in empathy and diplomacy’ and accusing them of bullying him.”
Goldbird reiterates that this was their first interaction with Birtel since his hiring – however, this was just a single example of a larger pattern. Goldbird states that almost anything could set off Birtel’s temper, which often led to him making employees cry in “daily standups.” Volunteers, on the other hand, were condescendingly berated in public Slack channels.
Despite this, the Board continuously defended Birtel and chose to ignore complaints filed against him, which, again, date as far back as six months prior to yesterday’s terminations.
“Paul Birtel told the board what they wanted to hear and what he thought would keep him in a job, and they chose to believe him,” Goldbird says. “The alternative would have meant both losing the months of work that went into Paul’s hiring and onboarding and needing to publicly admit that they were very, very wrong about someone they had already spent a lot of time and energy backing up. No amount of ‘proof’ has been enough for them – not the formal HR complaints, not watching Paul attack others, not the staff revolting, not the attendees revolting. At this point, they’re so invested in believing him, I’m not sure anything can change their minds.”
As it stands, this could be the end of MAGFest. Aside from encouraging people not to support an event run by alleged abusers, Goldbird points out that the staffer Birtel fired – Debra – was the organization’s events director.
Similarly to Goldbird, Debra was asked to sign a Separation and Release of Claims agreement – if she didn’t, she would not receive four weeks’ severance and two months of health insurance, despite being fired on the spot earlier that day.
“In addition, you will be offered four weeks of severance pay and 2 months of health insurance coverage, in consideration for your execution, non-revocation of, and compliance with the attached Separation and Release of Claims Agreement (Separation Agreement),” Debra’s termination email reads. “Please review, fully execute, and return the executed Separation Agreement no later than close of business on December 30, 2020 by e-mail or hello sign to receive the offered severance benefits. We will be following this email with the hello sign document for your review. MAGFest recommends that you carefully review the Separation Agreement prior to executing it, and reach out to Paul Birtel if you have any questions during your review.”
“[Debra is] responsible for a huge chunk of the work that needs to happen to put on any event, much less one in an entirely new format like Virtual MAGFest was planned to be,” Goldbird says. “After her firing yesterday, several other key staffers, including the person in charge of MAGFest’s entire live-streaming setup, have publicly stepped away from their roles in protest. I was also on the steering committee for Virtual MAGFest and working on several critical projects for its infrastructure that haven’t been handed off. So no, I don’t think they’re going to be able to put on an event in a month, but part of me would love to see them try.”
TheGamer also saw Debra’s own statement to the staffers and volunteers remaining at MAGFest under Birtel and the Board.
“I was told that Jasmin (our HR manager) was unaware of the decision to fire me and that Paul Birtel intended to restructure HR significantly in the months to come (the optics of which come off very, very badly to me),” Debra’s statment reads. “Second, I was explicitly told that the decision to fire me was not in any way related to the Friends of MAGFest website, but rather for my ‘work performance surrounding the writeup I received from the board,’ which I continue to consider retaliatory towards me. And lastly, although it was completely within Paul Birtel’s power to structure this differently, I was informed that my health insurance would be terminated at the end of the month (i.e. in three days) unless I were to sign a separation agreement that prevents me from filing any suit against the company, among other things.
“Of course, a company has the right to do that, but if that’s what they choose to do, it’s not a company I want to work for anyway. I find it despicable, unethical, and astonishingly antithetical to the MAGFest core values to eliminate healthcare coverage from a longtime, dedicated employee in the middle of a pandemic unless they give up their right to express grievances about the mistreatment they suffered and were fired for exposing.”
As for Friends of MAGFest, Goldbird describes it as a group of employees and volunteers who fell victim to the continued abuses of Birtel and the Board.
“Before going public, each of us had spent months working with the Board and Paul Birtel trying to collaborate, explain the things that were broken at MAGFest, and somehow move towards a healthier future,” Goldbird says. “Unfortunately, they responded with retaliation and aggression at every opportunity. After Paul Birtel released an inflammatory statement to the entire staff saying that I and another staffer were under investigation for ‘Code of Conduct violations’ (which was a surprise to us), we felt there was no choice but release our materials to staff and hope we could gain enough public support to sway Paul and the Board.”
Goldbird and their colleagues have also published instructions for anyone who wants to do their part in rectifying the situation. They acknowledge that they have received an overwhelming amount of love from the community and encourage any sympathetic parties to let the Board know that they do not stand with them. Details of how to contact the Board – as well as what the terminated employees and volunteers want you to say – can be found here.
“We appreciate your support more than we can say, and we will never stop hoping for a brighter future for the entire MAGFest community,” the statement concludes.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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