Owners of Tenoverten acknowledge ‘toxic’ workplace

The owners of Tenoverten issued a public apology on Instagram recently, acknowledging that they allowed racist behaviors — largely from customers — to poison the workplace they created. They also acknowledged a lawsuit from two employees who claimed they were discriminated against based on race. The post came after one former employee, photographer Dana Scruggs, broke her non-disclosure agreement and published a lengthy accusation of the owners on Medium.

“We come forward after many days of silence with full humility and transparency, ready to hold ourselves accountable for changing the toxic policies we upheld,” the post on Tenoverten’s Instagram read. “We will never fully understand the experience of a Black woman, let alone of a Black woman working in the service industry oftentimes catering to privileged white women. Too often we catered to customers and their needs when in reality we got it all wrong and should have been more focused on protecting our employees first.”

I spoke to Adair Ilyinsky, who along with Tribecan Nadine Abramcyk (whose husband operates Smith & Mills and Tiny’s) founded Tenoverten here on Reade Street in 2010. (I also tried to reach Dana Scruggs, but while we did connect on email, she did not want to speak.) Both Scruggs and another employee, Okite Omineh, were fired for cause — one in 2017 and one in 2018 — and both then sued for discrimination. The parties mediated and settled. But when the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction this summer, both former employees decided their complaint should be heard.

“Tenoverten is making performative statements saying that they ‘stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,’ while gladly upholding white supremacy by silencing two Black women in order to protect their reputations with their clients and their partnerships with brands like Target, Credo, and GOOP,” Scruggs wrote on Medium. “Why don’t they hold themselves accountable for how they’ve harmed Black women and women of color — FOR ONCE?! That’s what solidarity ACTUALLY looks like.”

Ilyinsky acknowledged that they failed to recognize when employees were being mistreated or discriminated against by customers, and that looking back, they should have made it a priority to protect their staff.

“When our staff was dealing with a rude customer and there were racial overtones, our policy had always been ‘the customer is always right,'” she said. “It was an old faulty mindset. We should have had more of a social contract with our customer, that when you walk in our doors, we are not here to judge you but we have certain expectations — not just for non-toxic and clean beauty, but to use that same lens for all we do.”

Tenoverten operates four salons here in the city (Reade plus Fidi, Soho and Midtown); they just closed the one in LA. They have 165 employees (40 in Tribeca alone), the majority of whom are minorities. At any one time they have 25 rotating front desk managers who manage all the scheduling, five of whom are Black — a number Scruggs said was far too low. Ilyinsky said they have not done job postings in years since most of their technicians come recommended by other staff members, many of whom are actors and often go on the road.

But now they have hired a Black HR manager who will actively post jobs with a focus on diversity. Customers will have to sign a social contract explaining what is expected of them in terms of behavior. And the new employee handbook will outline anti-racism and anti-discrimination guidelines.

“This felt personal and hurtful, but we wanted to use it as an opportunity,” said Ilyinsky. “Sometimes as a business owner you are just putting out fires and we want to be more intentional moving forward. We are committed.”


View this post on Instagram


This is a difficult letter to write – one that we’ve written and re-written many times over the course of the past few weeks. We come forward after many days of silence with full humility and transparency, ready to hold ourselves accountable for changing the toxic policies we upheld. We are committed to doing the work and acknowledge the opportunity for change and transformation. We will never fully understand the experience of a Black woman, let alone of a Black woman working in the service industry oftentimes catering to privileged white women. Too often we catered to customers and their needs when in reality we got it all wrong and should have been more focused on protecting our employees first. Our inaction hurt many people over the years and we are here to make a change. From this point on, we will arm ourselves with the resources to emerge from this with new policies in place to set our employees up for success and to ensure they are truly heard going forward. We are forging ahead with a focus on a culture of accountability. We’ll be holding our employees, our customers, and ourselves accountable for the interactions that happen in our salons. Below is an outline of our preliminary steps that we will be expanding on in the coming weeks: • We have brought on a Human Resource consultant to implement policy reform and a true Equal Opportunity Workplace culture. The HR consultant will be an ally to our employees by serving as a completely safe and unbiased resource. • We will institute a social contract for all customers explaining what is expected of them during their time in our salons. • As we are able to re-hire a team of employees, we will have an employee handbook and contract that outlines explicit anti-racism and anti-discrimination guidelines supported by ongoing, frequent training for all employees. We will participate in all training courses beside our team. This plan is the first stage of creating an inclusive working environment once we are able to hopefully re-open some of our salons post pandemic. This is a work in progress and we don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to the work and hope you will support us on the journey.

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  1. Very interesting article in Medium written by Scruggs that you linked to this write up. Sheds a lot of light on the issue. Stunning but not surprising how these owners and women could be so heartless in their treatment of their employees. Ignoring what was inconvenient. While I like the salon very much, I don’t think I can continue going there after reading this, regardless of their efforts to “make it right”. Seems to me like it’s a PR stunt to save face.

  2. I think this involves more than just “the customer is always right” mindset. The owners are privileged and discriminatory and awful to their immigrant and black employees. How are staff not allowed to have a microwave or eat lunch on premise? Why is the comfort of a paying customer more important than a hardworking employee scrubbing feet and waxing private parts all day. I don’t buy there excuses. I remember a few years ago when the Nail industry was exposed for human rights and wage violations. Tenoverten sent an email to their customers, capitalizing on it and affirming that they pay their employees the right wage. But that’s not generosity, that’s doing what’s legal, and why should you be congratulated for doing the bare minimum? I knew then that something wasn’t right with these owners. Advocating for something because it’s “woke”, just like with BLM.

    Also, do you ever see diversity at any of her husbands restaurants? That’s says a lot.

  3. This is infuriating. I will no longer be going to Tenoverten. As a POC this causes me great pain to read. Hoping more neighbors also avoid this place.

  4. I am torn about my feelings concerning the published responses thus far and wonder if the harder road to take is to do the work the owners have promised to do and have the salon thrive or boycott the business and have it close.
    They got caught and have presented to the public the desire to change. I do not go to Tenoverten for my pedicures but my daughter loved going there when she lived in the city and she was raised to be polite and respectful.
    I am on the team of giving these women a chance no matter of their privileges. We are in a learning curve in the US and no white person is guilt free. There, I’ve said it. And I send my thanks to the former employees who had the courage to help further the educating of the white class along so that we can move this system of indifference and hate away from our national character. We are so entrenched in racism that it is in the very marrow of our society and it won’t be a smooth ride to root it out. As a white woman I cannot even fathom what people of color have and do go through on a daily basis. I hope we are all up fo the challenge.

  5. Personal service businesses that don’t put their customers first have a way of fading out of existence. I doubt many people want a dose of someone else’s politics with their hairdo. Tenoverten’s response to this kerfuffle is a good example of ubiquitous black privilege among the enlightened left of Tribeca.

    • Your response to the article is ill-informed and patronizing. According to Dana Scruggs, the employees were subject to demeaning and abusive behaviors by some customers as well as the owners. Ms. Scruggs attempted to get basic necessities for the employees at work such as a microwave and a suggested tip chart and was shot down. No where is it alleged that Dana Scruggs or any employee of the salon ever tried to share their personal or political opinions with customers.

      • A “tip chart” is a form of not so subtle form of coercion. Customers who feel the service merits a tip don’t need a chart. If I were running the business I would have let Ms. Scruggs go in a heartbeat. FYI you virtue signaling white woman, I run a service business with 47 employees. NYS is a fire at will state. I don’t need to justify my employment decisions. Firing someone because she put on weight is ok.

  6. There is sssoooo much to say here.
    First, I am disgusted that my fellow neighbors would mistreat someone because of the color of their skin.
    I’m disgusted, but not shocked, tenoverten allowed it. There was always something a bit off with this salon, that seemed to get worse over time. And the customer is always right- NO! Not when your employees are being mistreated. Business 101- take care of your employees and that translates to a great customer experience. And they weren’t so great to customers.
    Also, find the article about how they let go the entire staff in March.. and they spin it like it was a favor. And they had no $$ because they were launching the Target line. That’s when i said- never again.
    And now I say… I am disgusted with myself for every giving them a dollar in business.