Montréal

Toxic work environment : testimonies from former BUF Montreal employees

Article published in French on January 22th 2021, updated and translated in English on February 9th 2021.

This last few months, several studios from the entertainement industry have been at the heart of journalistic investigations, sometimes even judicial investigations. At the heart of the matter : issues such as moral harassment.

We have recently been able to talk with several people who used to work for BUF Montreal. They told us they witnessed or were the victim of bad behaviour from the management team : issues regarding overtime, employees treated in such a way that they decided to leave the company, or even psychological issues.

Before we go further, we should highlight that this article is not an indictiment against BUF as a whole : the company is 30 years old, and its main studio is located in France. We will focus here solely on BUF Montreal, launched much more recently.

Here is a summary of the information we were able to gather and cross-check thanks to our exchanges with several people who used to work there.

We only focused or recent events that happened over the past three years. Since they asked not to be identified, we will not disclose the names of our witnesses. Of course, we did confirm their identity during our investigation, and we checked that they really have been part of the studio. Furthermore, and unless explicitely stated, we only publish here details that have been brought up by at least two witnesses.

Some testimonies about BUF Montreal can be found on third-party websites such as Glassdoor, where former employees can review companies. However, we decided to put those testimonies aside, since we can’t check by ourselves if they were written by people who really did work for BUF Montreal.

Although, as will be highlighted below, some of the allegations are quite common within the VFX/M&E industry, we thought we had to publish those testimonies. First, because these people (who might have worked for other studios before or since) think the situation they witnessed is different from the rest of the industry. Secondly, even if some specific issues such as overtime are widespread, this topic should, we think, be brought up and discussed.

“BUF mentality” : the testimonies

According to our sources, they had to endure what some explicitly called the “BUF Mentality” :

  • according to them, the management team routinely uses derogatory and demeaning remarks. Of course, the management should be able to give negative feedback when necessary, but several witnesses state that complaints about the speed and quality of the work done were pervasive. They also denounce a lack of encouragements about what has been done, and the use of disparagement, insults, infantilisation;
  • various irrespectful comments and behaviour: some witnesses explained the management sometimes shouted on artists, gave inappropriate remarks about the way they dress, or insulted them. One of the testimonies highlighted that these abuses and insults are all the more problematic when you consider the fact that a non-harassment policy must be signed by each and every employee when they join the company;
  • The witnesses tend to describe the studio as a very cleaved between the management and the teams of artists, even if, a witness told us, leads behaving badly are not the norm;
  • overtime is encouraged, and sometimes perceived as mandatory by several witnesses. Those who did not comply were poorly seen by the management team. This overtime usually translated as follow : two evenings a week (from6 to 10pm, sometimes even later) and a day at the end of the week. The witnesses also tell us that even though overtime should receive either additionnal pay or compensatory time off, in practice only the second option was allowed. The witnesses tell us that overtime was poorly perceived, and that the fact that some supervisors went out of the studio to enjoy themselves at a neighbouring bar. This, of course, is one of the reasons the employees felt there was a cleavage within the studio. Last, but not least, some witnesses told us they had to work overtime for months. In other words, overtime was the norm and not just used during a specific part of the project.
  • some witnesses told us that the Montreal management team asked them to hide information from the CEO: more precisely, they were asked not to tell that they were using software other than the mandatory in-house tools.
  • last, but not least, some of those issues are, according to our witnesses, known by the HR department, but the department did not act based on this.

If some of there elements cas seem rather trivial, the witnesses explained us that they were combined to a chaotic work environment. The high number of young artists seem to be one of the reasons for this. To sum it up, there was a detrimental work environment, with heavy consequences.

The Canadian immigration rules also played a role, according to the witnesses, since the immigration status is linked to the job you have: resigning therefore has huge consequences.

Consequences

Some of the people we contacted openly described the way they felt, or what they witnesses: a tight feeling in the stomach in the morning when coming to work, tears (including inside the studio, and without any reaction from the management or human resources), or even depression.

Some witnesses told us about multiple employees leaving the company. Most of the witnesses, by the way, ultimately decided to resign in order to flee this work environement.

It seems that the company’s management decided to act at some point, and set up a way for employees to send anonymous complaints. Unfortunately, following one of these complaints, and according to several witnesses, the head of BUF Montreal became very angry and openly, publicly insulted two people from the studio. He seemed convinced that he had identified who filed the complaint. We have been told that he also publicly stated that he wanted de-anonymize the complaint with the help of the IT department. These accusations are serious and these events would obviously prevent employees from being confident they could raise some issues and be heard.

Why testify ? “I wouldn’t want anyone else to live the same thing”

When testimonies are published in the media, we often see the same comments : “why”. Why did they decide to testify, what was their goal. Our witnesses gave us very similar explanations. One of them told us they hoped the testimony would “help future employees” and prevent further moral harassment. Another explained they were “afraid” this kind of behaviour would lead to “something even worse” if someone less strong was a victim. A third witness added that they “wouldn’t want anyone to live the same thing”.

One of the witnesses we contacted explained they had been the target of harassment or insults, but clearly saw the effects of this behaviour on their colleagues.

It was difficult for them while working for BUF Montreal. since the witnesses explain they saw tears, axiety attacks, that the supervisors and/or HR also saw them, but that no action was taken, they have been deterred to talk about it within the studio. Since several witnesses also explained there is a cleavage between the artists and the management, we can guess this also hindered any action. Lastly, what happened following an anonymous complaint would surely prevent many people to file a complaint as well.

We should also highlight, once again, that the Canadian immigration process creates a link between a foreign worker and the residence permit: loosing a job can have huge consequences.

Lastly, the fear of being blacklisted is quite common in an industry that is in the end quite small, and where reputation is everything. It is quite telling that the witnesses decided to remain anonymous.

Serious accusations, but not unheard of in the industry ? One more reason to talk about it

After reading these testimonies, there is no doubt some of you will be tempted to say they have already experienced similar situations, and that many studios have similar working environments. Mandatory overtime, artists that don’t feel they get the respect they deserve, burn-out, high turnover rates, for examples, are not unheard of within the industry.

Two key elements, however, decided us to highlight this specific case.

First of all, the consequences of these events on the artists. Even if management issues are quite common, it is unusual to have so many witnesses, during the same period, reporting an experience so bad it provoked tears, anxiety attacks and psychological issues.

Besides, the idea that at least some of these issues are comme might be a good reason to talk about them: if an issue is so prevalent, should’nt we all discuss it, within the whole industry ?

This is why this article is not only about a specific studio, and that it should also be an opportunity to highlight the consequences of bad working environments as a whole and, maybe, to find solutions to improve them.

For decades, “crunch” has been the norm within the videogames industry, in spite of the effects it had on the employees. This practice is now being discussed and many want to get rid of it. In the same manner, some practices seen as “normal” within the VFX industry should probably also be put under scrutiny.

This could, hopefully, create better working conditions for all.

Right to reply : BUF reacts to our article

Given the content of the testimonies, we got in touch with BUF in order to ask them to comment these allegations. The studio gave us the following answer.

“We are regretting and contesting the above description of the working conditions at BUF MONTREAL, by means of “anonymous testimonials”, presented as numerous, and describing an allegedly serious and widespread situation.

But this article is based on a very small group of people, hired for their very first job and assigned to a project that has proven to be intense, who are delivering here, after their departure, a very subjective version of their experience.

We are surprised that you chose not to mentione that you’ve contacted many other BUF employees, in the context of an “investigation” that was clearly going to be incriminating, since it was solicitating only testimonials of “problematic or illicit behaviour”. And that our employees did not wish to respond to your request, because they have never witnessed situations as the ones that have been described to you, and that you’re reporting without prior verification with anyone.

The accusations against us are therefore only based on a few isolated and unverified “testimonies”. You describe facts and situations that are neither specific nor dated in order to support these particularly serious claims, and with good reason.

Neither recently nor in the past few years have we received any complaints or grievances, harassment, insults, inappropriate behaviour or any other form of harassment, physical or verbal abuse of any kind.

No scenes of screaming or crying have been reported to us, although the work is performed in an open space. The employees currently on the job, whom we questioned, indicated us that they haven’t witnessed any denigration, disrespectful behaviour, outbursts of voice or demeaning comments. And even less insults or inappropriate remarks about anybody’s outfits.

Nor have we observed any work interruption recently or over the past years, due to depression or “psychological problems” of any kind, nor any other voluntary departures linked to working conditions. And we have never been investigated, judicially or administratively.

The teams and the management are shocked to read these accusations, expressed in serious terms although fuzzy and unsupported, with obvious disinterest in leading complementary research and also, in the first place, that we were not even contacted beforehand.

We are also shocked by the description made of the use of overtime in our company.

Contrary to what is suggested, the use of overtime is legal in French law, as in Canadian law, as well as the compensation of these hours by resting time. The overtime is often necessary in our field of action.

Compensating overtime with time off rather than pay is a choice that belongs to the employer. We made this choice to avoid, precisely, burn out situations or work overload. Our employees are in formed about it as soon as they are hired, and it’s indicated in the “The Employee’s Handbook” which is provided on the first day of employment.

We are surprised to read that this situation, legal and legitimate in every way, is described as the expressi on of a “chaotic work atmosphere” or as a “BUF mentality”.

There is no particular cleavage in our operating structure, other than the natural one resulting from the hierarchy of any company. However, we are observing that there’s no mention of the measures we are implementing to best promote the development and growth of the communication between our teams.

The alleged fear of losing one’s job, and therefore one’s Canadian work permit, as well as the fear of being “blacklisted” is unfounded: there are mo re than 30 studios in Montreal, the job market is abundant. Graphic artists are valuable and they can easily find a new position from one day to the next.

Wishing to launch a debate on working conditions in audiovisual production companies might seem noble minded. But this cannot be done on the only basis of a few anonymous “testimonials”, more than subjective and evoking vague or inaccurate elements, away from any kind of context.

We are very much regretting the absence of a serious journalistic investigation that would have yet enabled you to avoid badly stigmatizing a company that is, unlike its competitors, hiring a lot of unexperienced young people, training them and giving them a first opportunity in the movie business; a company that allows its artists, even beginners, to craft shots from A to Z and thus acquire autonomy, versatility and experience to be resold to major studios. Our company was also one of the few, in Montreal, to maintain and protect as many jobs as possible, and to provide financia l assistance to its employees during the Covid crisis.

In spite of these serious and unfounded accusations, whose purpose we do not understand and which harm first and foremost our teams, we will strive, as we have always done, to work in compliance with the legal rules while ensuring the well being of our employees and the respect of their rights.”

More details about our investigation

Since BUF decided to question the quality of the work done by 3DVF and not just the testimonies we provided, we decided to give you a few additionnal details.

  • It is true we got in touch with several people who are working for BUF Montreal, or used to work there. As can be expected, we cross-checked the testimonies as objectively as we could, and we tried not to lead the witnesses: we told these people that we had been told there were issues at BUF Montreal, that we were investigating these allegations and we asked each person we got in touch with if they “had witnesses/been victim of problematic and/or illicit behaviour behaviour and [if they wished] to discuss the matter”. We decided to remain vague on purpose, and we carefully avoided to tell the witnesses what whe had already been told, in order not to lead the witnesses, to investigate incriminating and exonerating circumstances equally and to be able to cross-check the testimonies.
  • It is true that the allegations don’t apply to all the employees within the studios : we never wrote otherwise, and we even explicitely wrote that one of the witnesses felt there was a toxic work environment, but was not the victim on any harassment. However, we don’t really understand how the fact that some employees don’t/didn’t have anything to report changes anything to the fact that the witnesses did experience what they told us.
  • At no point do we write that overtime is illegal, and we are suprised BUF decided to focus on this point. We do, however, highlight the pressure felt by the witnesses, and the way overtime was used (in particular, the fact that it has been used for several months in a row in the past).
  • As for the lack of dates and names : this is indeed a weakness of the article, but it was necessary to protect the identity of our witnesses, since they asked to remain anonymous. The full testimonies we gathered were, of course, more detailed. We do, however, give a few specific details, such as the testimonies about the head of BUF Montreal who is said to have tried to de-anonymize a complaint: we are surprised that BUF decided not to reply to this serious accusation, which challenges the idea that the studio never “received any complaints”.
  • More generally, we regret that BUF, instead of rejecting all the allegation due to the lack of complaints and the fact that other employees keep a good memory of the working environment, does not wonder why, since the witnesses we talked to are real, why they could not, or would not, talk openly and to the management.
  • Lastly, BUF states that the studio will “strive, as we have always done, to work in compliance with the legal rules while ensuring the well being of our employees and the respect of their rights”: this is precisely the goal of the witnesses.

To our readers : 3DVF will keep listening to what you have to tell us. You can contact us using our e-mail adress contact@3dvf.com or by sending us a private message on our social media accounts.

Next page : a few testimonies we received after we first published the article.

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