Former employee sues Ace Hotel, alleging defamation and corporate negligence
When Claire Henry started working as director of marketing and programming at the Ace Hotel in Chicago shortly after it opened in Fulton Market in the fall of 2017, she was excited about the possibility of creating a space where all kinds of people could come together to enjoy music, art and gastronomy. For Henry, who had just finished graduate school, it sounded like a great experience, and she immediately began contacting artists and DJs to schedule a full slate of parties, talks, and exhibits.
Now, four and a half years later, the Ace has left town and Henry, who says he was asked to leave his job in September 2020, is suing the hotel chain for defamation, corporate negligence and emotional suffering. Ace’s diversity and inclusion ethos was just a front, and behind the scenes, the chain’s management was guilty of mistreating and even abusing its workers, especially its black workers, Indigenous Peoples and People of Color (BIPOC), according to his lawsuit. , with specific examples from social media claims. Instead of taking responsibility for its culture, the lawsuit argues that Ace used employees like Henry, who is white, as scapegoats.
“Ace hires young, enthusiastic, enthusiastic people who really need [the brand] on their resume,” says Henry. “They need connection, and they are not able to fight. It’s like bullshit that these people are hurt and damaged by a company that has relied on the idea of community, connectedness and inclusivity. I’ve gotten to a point, like so many employees who have complained, where you either stop talking about it or realize that’s how they keep getting away with this behavior. That’s why, she says, there are so many other complaints besides her own on file.
Attorney General Meriem Soliman wrote in an email to Eater that the Ace was unable to comment on the ongoing litigation.
During Henry’s first year at the Ace, everything seemed to be going well. Henry said she has received praise for her work from Ace management and members of the community. She sometimes felt overworked, underpaid and poorly supported: Her starting salary was $63,000 and she was expected to not only manage the hotel’s programming – between three and 10 events a week – but also its brand image in Chicago, with the help of only one other person, a social media manager. Yet she also felt like she was doing some important work, associating with some interesting people including singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, rapper Anderson .Paak, and the late artist and designer Virgil Abloh. The hotel also hosted a panel with Eater Chicago in 2019.
Henry says she was always “hyper aware” of her race when she put together the hotel’s program schedule. She wanted to make sure the Ace was a place where everyone in Chicago would feel comfortable. “I didn’t want to do programming that only reflected my point of view and who I was,” she says. She worked with DJ bookers to hire DJs to play a variety of music; she hoped that by hosting regular dance parties, they and Waydown would develop a following. Waydown was the first rooftop bar in Fulton Market, then a slightly out of the way industrial area, and part of Henry’s job was to help it find its place in Chicago.
His work has not gone unnoticed. “Ace Hotel helped fill a gap in the limited number of nightlife options for Black Millennials, thanks to a host of creatives and thoughtful employees who centered our needs,” wrote the Triibe, a website which describes itself as “reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago and putting ownership back in the people. The Triibe specifically singled out Waydown (which was later renamed Little Wild) in its article.
Henry’s official title at the Ace was “cultural engineer,” a title she and her chain-wide counterparts didn’t like, she says. It made them feel like engineers or culture manipulators, and it didn’t quite clarify their place in the leadership hierarchy. They asked senior management for a better title that more accurately described the job they were actually doing: managing the hotel brand and cultural programming, not determining what the hotel culture should be. But Henry says that in the trial, their demands were ignored.
In late 2018, the Ace Chicago hired a new general manager, Jesse Boles, who wanted to revamp aspects of the hotel he felt were lacking. One of them was Waydown. Boles and his managers at Ace headquarters felt the bar had too much of a club feel, Henry says; they envisioned it more as a cocktail bar. In mid-2019, they made a list of music they no longer wanted to play there. This included trap music, a popular hip-hop subgenre that features intense instrumentals (characterized by heavily accented hats and rumbling under-basses) and raps about street life. The music was one of the main draws for the young black crowd who came to the venue to dance. (The Ace’s list of music to cut also included country pop.)
Henry told management she thought the move would be “dangerous” and create racial tension among staff and with the public, but she says they ignored her. Instead, they left it to Henry to break the news to the staff, who assumed the decision had been his and was racially motivated. None of these things, she said, were true. She asked Ace management to clarify who made the decision, but, she says in the lawsuit, they ignored her request and the staff continued to believe Henry wanted to discourage black people from coming to Waydown. When customers complained about the removal of trap music on social media and in person, the Ace did not respond, according to the lawsuit; the bad feelings festered and were increasingly directed at Henry.
In May 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, the frustration of BIPOC workers boiled over. With other businesses across the country openly declaring their support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the form of public statements and donations, it took the hotel chain nearly a week to post a message on its Instagram account of company that pledged to “take a hard look inside to identify racism and inequality within our own home.
Ace employees across the chain responded to the message with a litany of complaints and anecdotes about racism within hotel management, which were cited in Henry’s lawsuit. Black workers claimed they were harassed and punished for behavior for which their white co-workers were praised. An unnamed former manager of the Ace Chicago restaurant, City Mouse, was quoted in the lawsuit as saying management specifically told him not to hire BIPOC workers.
According to the lawsuit, Henry and his fellow self-styled cultural engineers felt that given their role, which required extensive interaction with hotel staff and the community, they were best placed to report to senior management. management of the general atmosphere, both inside and outside the hotel. Instead, Boles held a meeting with Waydown staff that Henry was not invited to.
The next day, according to the lawsuit, Boles sent an email to staff acknowledging “that many systems and policies designed to address employee issues have an inherent bias toward existing structures and, therefore, do not do enough to support vulnerable groups”. and swearing to do better. In response, an Ace Chicago bartender emailed all Ace employees worldwide; it included a Google document created by Waydown staff that claimed Henry had “advocated” for trap music to be removed, and also included a list of demands that called for “reform of the ‘Cultural Engineering’ department and current manager of the Ace Hotel. Chicago, Claire Henry, to END.
In an Instagram post in late July, the Ace said it was listening and taking action, including instituting implicit bias training, salary reviews, listening circles and investigating all allegations. One of the earliest of these investigations concerned Henry, specifically his role in suppressing trap music. Ace CEO Brad Wilson had previously announced in an email to the entire organization that Henry would be ‘investigated for inappropriate bias and racism’, and if found guilty, she would be fired.
In July, Henry was interviewed by an outside investigator, and in August she says the investigator and Ace’s human resources manager told her they had found his behavior was neither racist nor biased. Henry, and later his lawyer, Tamara Holder, asked the Ace to send a message to all employees to clear his name. Instead, in September, the hotel handed her a separation agreement, reportedly due to “downsizing,” and offered her a payment of $3,930.82 in exchange for waiving all claim against the company, according to the lawsuit. The deal came just as Henry was about to go on leave, so she never got a chance to explain her departure to her co-workers.
“They needed to say, ‘We need to fix this,'” says Holder. “[They needed to say to the employees] “Look, we’re sorry Claire looks at you like that. She did. Let’s talk about the problem of trap music. Because that’s what a family and a community do.
For Henry, what happened to her is just one example of how she says the Ace mistreated other employees. “It’s not just one employee who voices concerns and has issues,” she says. “It’s a broader issue of how this company treats its employees and how it wants you to feel part of a tight-knit, close community and celebrate art, diversity and inclusion. . But when faced with great cultural and social upheaval, they failed to rise to the occasion.
Henry seeks $50,000 in damages, less than the equivalent of what she earned each year working at Ace. She was able to continue working in the arts and interior design, in a much less public role. But she and Holder feel it’s important for the Ace to address his accusations and explain the discrepancies between his rhetoric of inclusion and the way he actually treats his employees, and why no one has responded to numerous requests for Henry to officially clear his name.
Holder filed a lawsuit on January 21. The Ace has yet to respond.