A brash maverick and consummate salesman, Mr. Smith, 48, transformed Vice from a free magazine in Montreal into a global company with roughly 3,000 employees, a television network, a digital footprint, a film-production company as well as a daily news show and documentary program on HBO.
Along the way Mr. Smith regularly mocked traditional media companies as stodgy and uncreative. But in recent years he set about courting conglomerates like the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox, which were eager to profit on Vice’s cachet with millennial audiences. The latest round of investment gave the company a valuation of more than $ 5.7 billion.
Behind that ascent, however, is a more disturbing aspect of Vice’s operations. People involved with Vice during its early days described a punk-rock, male-dominated atmosphere in which attempts to shock sometimes crossed a line.
In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Smith recalled his earlier days with Vice. “I would be at the party and would just want to get wasted, take coke and have sex with girls in the bathroom,” he said.
In 2003 Vice reached a $ 25,000 settlement with the freelance writer Jessica Hopper. The deal involved defamation claims tied to an interview she did with the rapper Murs that was published in the February 2003 issue of the magazine, according to a copy of the agreement viewed by The Times. During the interview, Murs asked Ms. Hopper if he could have sex with her. She said no and included that answer in her article.
But before the article was published, the magazine changed her response to yes and printed it under the headline, “I Got Laid But Murs Didn’t.”
Mortified, Ms. Hopper hired lawyers. The two sides struck a settlement that, in addition to a payout, required Vice to print a retraction and a formal apology.
In 2003, Vice ran an interview with the rapper Murs conducted by a freelance writer, Jessica Hopper. During the interview, Murs had asked Ms. Hopper if he could have sex with her. She said no and included that answer in her piece. But before the article was published, the magazine changed her response to yes.
“People marveled at their ability to make their own rules and blindly disregard everyone else’s,” Ms. Hopper said in an interview. She declined to comment on the existence of a settlement.
“The editor of the piece at that time has not been with the company in a decade,” Vice said in a statement. “Ms. Hopper was right to call us on our conduct at the time, and we are still ashamed of it.”
Mr. Smith, who had long celebrated a life of hard-partying excess, married a woman in 2009 who had worked at Vice and started wearing suits to the office, current and former employees said. But they also suggested that he oversaw a company where issues of sexual misconduct and harassment festered.
In their statement, Mr. Smith and Mr. Alvi admitted that dysfunction and mismanagement from the company’s early days “were allowed to flourish unchecked.”
Women said that they felt that rejecting sexual advances from bosses could result in reassignment or lost work, and that when they reported problems, executives downplayed the allegations. Some said that while they considered taking legal action, they thought they lacked the financial resources to sue and feared that Vice would retaliate.
“There is a toxic environment where men can say the most disgusting things, joke about sex openly, and overall a toxic environment where women are treated far inferior than men,” said Sandra Miller, who worked as head of branded production at Vice from 2014 to 2016.
She said that as a 50-year-old woman she did not face harassment but witnessed “the complicity of accepting that behavior, covering up for it, and having even the most progressive people look the other way.”
The workplace problems were particularly disappointing, many women said, because they had viewed Vice as their dream opportunity. The company didn’t pay well, some said, but it was the definition of cool for those who wanted to create entertainment and journalism on the cutting edge. The company bestowed select staff members rings that spell V-I-C-E — considered the ultimate prize.
People worked long hours and partied together afterward. And that’s where the lines often blurred. Multiple women said that after a night of drinking, they wound up fending off touching, kissing and other advances from their superiors.
Two women told The Times about episodes involving Mike Germano, Vice’s chief digital officer who founded Carrot Creative, the digital ad agency that Vice acquired in 2013. Amanda Rue, a former strategist, said that at Carrot’s holiday party in 2012 Mr. Germano told her that he hadn’t wanted to hire her because he wanted to have sex with her.
Gabrielle Schaefer, who worked closely with Mr. Germano as director of communications at Carrot, said he made her feel uncomfortable during a work event at a bar one night in 2014 when he pulled her onto his lap. After Ms. Schaefer reported the incident to human resources, she said, she felt that she fell out of favor at the company and eventually left.
“Carrot has been repeatedly recognized as one of the industry’s best places to work, and I do not believe that these allegations reflect the company’s culture — or the way we treat each other,” Mr. Germano said in a statement. “With regards to the incident with Ms. Schaefer, I agreed at that time it was inappropriate, I apologized, and it was resolved with the help of HR.” He said that days later Ms. Schaefer joined his family for dinner and that they “continued to work together amicably.”
In the settlement involving Mr. Creighton, the woman claimed she felt pressured to submit to advances he made during a series of work meetings from 2013 to 2015, according to people familiar with the matter and letters sent between lawyers for the woman and Vice.
In a letter to the woman’s lawyer, Vice denied the allegations and said the woman had initiated and pursued a sexual relationship with Mr. Creighton. The company said in the letter that her termination was based on poor performance.
The dispute was settled in December 2016 after the woman filed a complaint with the United States Equal Opportunity Commission. (She withdrew her complaint as a condition of the agreement.)
In a statement, Mr. Creighton said that he and the woman were “close friends for several years before she joined Vice,” and that they were “occasionally intimate” once she began working there. He said he was not involved in the decision to let her go.
“I apologize for the situation, and it has caused much thought in my responsibilities of care for my colleagues, and I will hold myself and others accountable in constructing a respectful workplace environment.”