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BBC Scotland’s Disclosure reveals allegations that BrewDog CEO abused power in his US bars

The chief executive of Scottish craft beer giant BrewDog has been accused of inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power in the workplace, according to an investigation by BBC Scotland’s BBC Scotland’s Disclosure.

Published: January 24, 2022
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More than 15 ex BrewDog staff have spoken out about CEO James Watt to the programme which aired on BBC One Scotland tonight (Monday, 24 January).

Former BrewDog USA workers said Mr Watt’s behaviour made female bartenders feel “uncomfortable” and “powerless”.

Mr Watt said the allegations were false and denies behaving inappropriately.

The company, headquartered in Ellon has more than 100 bars and employs more than 2,000 people worldwide. The company says it’s worth around £2bn.

In 2016, BrewDog opened its first bar in the US, in Columbus, Ohio, and it now has eight across three states.

The Disclosure team started investigating the company after nearly 300 former and current BrewDog staff signed a letter last year, accusing Mr Watt of presiding over a toxic culture of fear.

The documentary The Truth About BrewDog, was broadcast after reports that Mr Watt had attempted to intimidate the film’s contributors before broadcast.

The film features interviews with 12 former BrewDog USA staff who have alleged Mr Watt abused his power in the workplace.

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The BBC Disclosure investigation makes no allegations of criminal behaviour with women by Mr Watt.

The documentary features claims that:

  • Mr Watt was witnessed by staff kissing an intoxicated customer on a roof terrace bar
  • Female bartenders were advised how to avoid unwelcome attention from Mr Watt
  • Managers would try and schedule certain female staff to be off to avoid Mr Watt’s visits
  • One bartender said she felt “powerless” to prevent unwelcome attention from Mr Watt
  • Mr Watt, while on trips to his US bars, took women on late night private brewery tours, leaving staff feeling uncomfortable
  • Mr Watt flirted with a staff member before taking her to the roof of a BrewDog building in view of other staff.

Katelynn Ising, who worked in DogTap, BrewDog’s flagship bar and brewery in Canal Winchester, Ohio, said female staff would dress down when they knew Mr Watt would be in their bars.

She said, “We would make a point to warn new girls… like, ‘Hey, just so you know, James Watt’s coming to town. Just kind of, like, leave after your shift, don’t really hang around [and] don’t always do your hair and makeup that day, like don’t catch his attention.’”

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Katelyn says she witnessed Mr Watt take female customers on late night tours of the US brewery.

“Sometimes there would be one woman, sometimes there would be a gaggle of women. They were always intoxicated, they were in their twenties usually. They were very pretty, and he would say he’s taking them on a private tour of the brewery.”

Former duty manager Jackie English says she witnessed Mr Watt doing similar things.

“There were three separate nights… [he’d]… come into the building with a girl, a young female, you know, cute little blondes and he would take them into the brewery… to give them a tour or whatever.”

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Jackie says this behaviour made her feel “uncomfortable”.

“You’re showing your employees that you can do whatever you want because of who you are and who your name is. That’s how it felt a lot of times.”

Mr Watt’s lawyer told the BBC: “[This] allegation is false and is denied. Mr Watt regularly takes both women and men, friends and customers on evening tours of the brewery. It is not true to say that those who accompany him are intoxicated. The claim that he did, was made by an employee in June 2021. It was fully investigated… the claims were not substantiated… no further action was warranted by BrewDog USA HR.”

Dylan Gray, was a manager at BrewDog Franklinton, in Columbus.

He told the programme: “I would schedule certain female staff around him… so they would not be there. I would schedule more men at nights when he was there. I would sit… behind the bar with female staff so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.”

One bartender, who asked not to be named, told the programme, “He was a starer, he liked to stare… I just wanted to leave [and] not really deal with it.”

She says she would ask to have her shifts changed in order to avoid him.

“What do you do when that’s your boss? … Like, the head of the company. You can’t really tell them no, or cut them off… you feel a little bit powerless.”

Manager Dylan Gray says the female bartender discussed her concerns with him.

“I mean, it didn’t make me feel good… To have someone who is your captain to make you feel that way… that shouldn’t be how it is… it was disappointing and I’m more or less disappointed in myself that I couldn’t make something happen sooner.”

Dylan claims he would have been “canned long ago” if he confronted Mr Watt.

Mr Watt’s lawyer told the BBC: “This is categorically denied. At no time has Mr Watt given unwelcome attention to any female bartender. That account is not true… this was fully investigated by Centric HC who concluded that there was no substance to these claims.”

His lawyer said following enquiries by BrewDog, none of the managers interviewed had any knowledge of staff attempting to change shifts to avoid Mr Watt.

Former manager Meg Herman told the BBC Mr Watt had been “flirtatious” with an employee one evening at their Canal Winchester HQ.

She said, “He ends up going up to the roof with her, and no-one… on staff, that was downstairs, felt comfortable with it.

“He could’ve gone anywhere else…but he didn’t. He did it at the brewery. And that is a power trip..”

Mr Watt’s lawyer told the BBC that their client “has never been on the roof of the DogTap, either on his own or accompanied by anyone.”

Duty manager Nathan Quick worked in BrewDog’s Franklinton bar until last year. He is one of two former staff who say they witnessed Mr Watt having a sexual encounter on the roof terrace bar.

“He was on the rooftop kissing with his hand up the shirt of this young lady… It wasn’t uncommon for us to have the perception that that was going on, but for us to physically see it… was something else.”

Mr Watt’s lawyer said: “At no time did Mr. Watt have a sexual encounter on the roof terrace of the Franklinton bar… We hold a statement from the only party that Mr Watt could have been present with at the Franklinton Bar.

"She has confirmed in her statement that Mr Watt and her did visit the roof briefly, but absolutely no sexual encounter took place. She has also confirmed that far from being intoxicated; she drove herself home that evening.”

Mr Watt’s lawyer said that they “hold a statement from the manager of BrewDog Franklinton, that it has never been reported to him, nor does he have any knowledge of Mr. Watt ever having any kind of sexual encounter with someone on the rooftop bar.”

The investigation spoke to almost 100 former and current BrewDog staff. Most of those who still work at the company said they were afraid to speak publicly for fear of losing their jobs.

One current employee was willing to speak publicly. Kayla McGuire works in the brewery in Ohio.

“I don't think that leaders should be able to intimidate their staff… I don't [think] anyone should have to go to work and be afraid of what's going to happen to them, especially not in an industry that should be joyful and fun and creative.”

She says Mr Watt’s behaviour around women was a talking point amongst staff at Brewdog USA.

“Those allegations have made many of us uncomfortable. Myself included.”

James Watt declined to be interviewed for the programme.

BrewDog chairman Allan Leighton said he’d been given assurances from Mr Watt the BBC’s claims were not accurate, and were based on misinformation.

Mr Leighton said: “James has committed to making improvements to his management style”.

He also noted: “Since publication of the open letter in 2021, the Board has overseen a major independent review into our culture and we have implemented a wide-ranging action plan to address the issues raised.”

Disclosure: The Truth About BrewDog is available on iPlayer

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