Report: Former Portland Thorns employees detail ‘toxic’ workplace

(Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

A group of former Portland Timbers and Thorns employees detail allegations of a “toxic” work environment in a report published Sunday in The Oregonian.

The publication talked with two dozen former employees who spoke on workplace issues, primarily directed at Portland Timbers and Thorns executive Mike Golub. Allegations of Golub’s problematic behavior, including unwanted physical contact and hostile conduct.

Blair Neelands, who used to work for the Portland club, recalls an instance in 2019 when she went to shake Golub’s hand ahead of a meeting.

“He steps on the toe of my left foot and pushes me back with his shoulder,” Neelands told The Oregonian. “I stumble backwards and fall. And he’s laughing. It’s just completely childish behavior from a grown man, just to ensure his subordinates know where they stand with him.”

Per the organization, Golub has not been the subject of a formal human resources complaint. An internal review conducted by law firm DLA Piper, however, uncovered several issues in need of addressing.

The firm found no concerns on the soccer operations side of the organization but did find issues on the business side. The investigation revealed problems with how women employees were treated in the workplace, consistent with The Oregonian’s findings.

Golub responded to the claims made against him, denying any inappropriate behavior.

“My entire career, it’s never been raised as an issue,” Golub told The Oregonian. “That said, we’re in different times now. If how I conducted myself, with truly the best intentions, made anyone feel uncomfortable, I take that really seriously. I’m really good at what I do, and I’m a really good person, but I can be better.”

Golub has committed to continued sensitivity training in the wake of the internal report.

“It’s coaching, learning about organizational bias, changing workplace, generational issues that emerge in the workplace, unconscious bias,” Golub said. “It’s important stuff that all of us, anybody, can get better at. I certainly can. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It means I can do better. And I think it’s really healthy and good.”

Owner Merritt Paulson was also the subject of criticism, though no specific issues were found involving Paulson in the internal investigation. The Oregonian story also included claims of a pervasively hostile environment toward women, detailing subpar accommodations for lactating mothers.

A former employee recounted her experience returning to work in 2018 postpartum and having to pump breastmilk in the suite where Paulson watches home Portland games. On game days, however, she said she had nowhere to pump but the bathroom.

Soon after, a room with a nameplate reading “electrical room” was converted to a lactation room. “A large piece of electrical equipment” took up most of the room, per The Oregonian.

“I could not be a mom at that organization,” the former employee said. “It was degrading and horrific, and the experience of even being in that room was embarrassing and mortifying.”

The team has said there is now a new space for nursing employees to pump. According to Sharia Mayfield, an attorney with the Portland-based law firm Meyer Stephenson, the club’s actions could have violated federal and state law. Oregon law “requires employers to ‘make reasonable efforts to provide a location, other than a public restroom or toilet stall, in close proximity to the employee’s work area for the employee to express milk in private,’” Mayfield told The Oregonian.

The internal review and claims brought forth via The Oregonian come after the club came under fire for its handling of allegations of sexual coercion by former coach Paul Riley.

On Monday, the NWSL released a statement addressing the alleged culture issues.

“There is nothing more important than the culture of the league,” the statement said. “Every person — players and employees included — deserve a respectful and professional workplace where people are supported and empowered to do their job.”

The league was made aware of a culture study conducted in 2021, per the statement, and is “supportive” of the changes that have been implemented as a result.

“We expect everyone associated with the NWSL to conduct themselves in a manner that creates a healthy and positive environment and we will continue to work tirelessly to achieve that objective,” the league said in its statement.