By Mark Daly & Myles Bonnar

BBC Disclosure

Image source, Alamy

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Brewdog co-founder James Watt has been accused of abuse of power in the workplace by former staff

The chief executive of Scottish beer giant Brewdog has been accused of inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power in the workplace by former staff.

More than 15 ex-Brewdog workers have spoken out about CEO James Watt to the BBC’s Disclosure programme.

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

Lawyers for Mr Watt said the allegations were false and he denied behaving inappropriately.

Brewdog was founded in 2007 by Mr Watt – then just 24 – and his friend Martin Dickie and it has its headquarters in Ellon in the north east of Scotland.

The company, which has more than 100 bars and employs more than 2,000 people worldwide, says it is worth about £2bn.

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

The BBC Scotland Disclosure team started investigating the company after almost 300 former and current Brewdog employees signed a letter last year accusing Mr Watt of presiding over a toxic culture of fear.

The documentary The Truth about Brewdog features interviews with 12 former Brewdog USA staff who have alleged inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power in the workplace 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 to 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.

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Katelynn Ising advised female staff not to wear makeup or wear hair down when Mr Watt was in town

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, 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.'”

Katelynn said she witnessed Mr Watt take female customers on late night tours of the US brewery, next to the DogTap.

“Sometimes there would be one woman, sometimes there would be a gaggle of women,” she said.

“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.”

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Jackie English said Mr Watt’s behaviour made her feel “uncomfortable

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

She said: “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.”

Jackie said this behaviour made her feel “uncomfortable”.

She said: “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 was false.

“Mr Watt regularly takes both women and men, friends and customers on evening tours of the brewery,” the lawyer said.

“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.”

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Dylan Gray said he would schedule more men on nights when Mr Watt was there

Dylan Gray was a manager at Brewdog Franklinton, in Columbus, Ohio.

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 that Mr Watt was “a starer”.

“He liked to stare,” she said. “I just wanted to leave [and] not really deal with it.”

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

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

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BrewDog launched its first operations in the US in 2016 and now has eight bars across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana

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

He said: “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 claimed 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.”

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

Image source, PA Media

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Brewdog has made its name with beers such as Punk IPA and Elvis Juice

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.”

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The Brewdog US HQ in Canal Winchester, Ohio

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,” he said.

“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 BBC 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.

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Kayla McGuire said Mr Watt’s behaviour around women was a talking point among staff

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,” she said.

“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 said Mr Watt’s behaviour around women was a talking point among staff at Brewdog USA.

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

James Watt declined to be interviewed for the BBC Disclosure programme.

Brewdog chairman Allan Leighton said he had been given assurances from Mr Watt that 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.”

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

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