NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Dave Ramsey has spent the past three decades trying to build what he calls the best place to work in America.
From his headquarters south of Nashville, the evangelical Christian personal finance guru runs a media and live events empire that includes a popular national talk radio show. Tickets to workshops on topics such as “EntreLeadership” run from $3,000 to $10,000.
Thousands of churches around the country, meanwhile, host Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University,” a 9-week program built around his principles for handling money “God’s way.”
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Ramsey’s primary product, he says, is hope, often in short supply when debt mounts up. That’s something Ramsey knows firsthand. When he was in his mid-20s, Ramsey and his wife owed millions after his real estate business failed. Following advice from a church friend, they rebuilt their lives.
The people who have followed his path now make pilgrimages to perform their “Debt Free Scream” on his radio show — celebrating that Ramsey’s methods gave them control of their lives.
But inside the company’s $42 million headquarters, which opened in 2019 in Franklin, Tennessee, Ramsey’s orchestration of what he calls a “predictable and reliable and safe and godly” company has been under stress from COVID-19, and Ramsey’s demands for unquestioning loyalty.
Ramsey’s intolerance for dissent has created what former employees call a cultlike environment, where leaders proclaim their love for staff and then fire people at a moment’s notice.
Ramsey Solutions, former employees and their spouses say, is run more like a church than a business. A review of court documents, company emails and recordings of staff meetings backs up these sources’ claims that company leaders attempt to exert control over employees’ personal lives.
At a staff meeting in July, Ramsey railed at his staff after an employee sued Ramsey Solutions for firing her for having premarital sex, which is against company policy, and said he would pay the price to protect what he had built out of love for his employees.
“I am sick of dealing with all this stuff,” Ramsey bellowed, according to a recording obtained by Religion News Service. “I’m so tired of being falsely accused of being a jerk when all I’m doing is trying to help people stay in line.”
In a sarcastic email responding to a request for comment on this story, Ramsey Solutions wrote, “We want to confirm for you that you are right, we are horrible evil people.”
In a follow-up email, the company said that it contests many of “the facts, details and conclusions” of Religion News Service’s reporting,” without specifying their objections. The company also declined to comment on pending litigation. (The entire statement can be found here.)
Religion News Service’s request for comment was also emailed to all the staff at the company and to local pastors. Many of them emailed or called, either to tell how Ramsey’s teaching had changed their lives and their passion to change the “toxic money culture.”
RELATED: Full Ramsey Solutions Response
Former employees also described Ramsey as a great place to work, at least at first.
In the spring of 2020, Heather Fulk’s husband, Jon, was working as a developer for Ramsey Solutions, a job that offered great co-workers and a family-friendly schedule. The company’s mission, too, was something Jon could believe in, his wife said.
Heather was more skeptical. For one thing, there was the spousal interview. In his 2011 book “EntreLeadership,” Ramsey recommends that companies vet spouses to make sure their hire is not “married to crazy.”
“When hiring someone, you are employing more than just the person,” his website advises. “You’re taking on the whole family. And when they are married to someone who is domineering, unstable or simply full of drama, you’ll end up with a team member who can’t be creative, productive or excellent.”
Heather Fulk balked: She didn’t want to work for Ramsey, her husband did. She had no desire to risk being labeled a “crazy spouse” or to cost her husband a job. But after Jon got the position, Heather said, the company had little impact on their personal life, except for their feeling that they had to keep her credit card a secret — consumer debt is a Ramsey no-no.
Then COVID-19 hit.
From the beginning, Ramsey downplayed the virus. His March 2, 2020 radio show began with a long rant against the news media, who, he said, were overstating the threat.
“You would think that the black plague was coming through the U.S., listening to people whine,” he told his audience. “You guys have lost your mind out there.”
He went on to say that the virus only affected the weak and infirm and that everyone else should get on with business as usual. He vowed to keep the company’s live events rolling, warning there would be no refunds.
“We have people calling in, they are wanting to cancel stuff for a live event in May — let me tell you how much of your money I am going to give you back if you don’t come for the coronavirus in May,” he said. “ZERO. I am keeping your money. You are a wuss.”
Plugging a “Live Like No One Else” cruise, scheduled for late March, Ramsey said he would go on the cruise, even if he was there “by my freaking self.” The cruise was later canceled.
Staffers, who are called “team members,” heard the same message. Don’t freak out. Trust company leaders to make wise decisions. Remember, the company existed to give people hope even in hard times.
“You are ok,” Ramsey said in an all-staff email published by the Nashville Scene in March after a company employee tested positive for COVID-19. “Ramsey is ok. This will soon be a memory.”
Within a few days, a second team member tested positive. Headquarters was shut down on March 20. Although the work-from-home experiment went well, the company’s leaders soon decided that Ramsey was not a work-from-home employer.
On May 4, the company’s offices reopened and, despite at least 100 positive cases in the subsequent seven months, have remained open since. Work continued on a $50 million addition to the company headquarters, which would house an additional 600 employees.
Ramsey’s return to in-person work frustrated Heather Fulk. She has asthma, which puts her at higher risk if infected with COVID-19. After learning employees were being called back to headquarters, she made what she thought was an innocuous comment in a private Facebook post.
“Jon’s company wants to bring all 900 employees back asap when a majority can do their work from home,” she wrote on April 20. “I do *not* understand how people don’t see we are setting ourselves up for a huge second wave. Ugh, people make me so angry.”
Before long, Jon got a call from his supervisor who said a co-worker had reported Heather’s comment. They had a screenshot of the post, sent by the co-worker’s spouse.
A few weeks later, Jon was fired. In his exit interview, Armando Lopez, head of human resources at Ramsey, confirmed that the cause was his wife’s social media comment, according to a recording of the meeting.
“There is definitely a line in the sand that we have drawn, for good or for bad,” Lopez is heard saying on the recording. “But it is a definite point that we are making.”
Ramsey Solutions offered $18,000 in severance, provided the Fulks would sign a nondisclosure agreement and agree never to make any negative comments about Ramsey.
The couple refused, forfeiting the severance. The company later claimed in a cease-and-desist letter that Ramsey policies that Jon signed at his hiring required him to keep details about Ramsey confidential.
Heather said that turning down the money was the right thing to do, despite their having to rely on friends who bought groceries and gave them money to pay their bills — a sign, she said, that God was looking out for them.
“I didn’t want to live under the fear of if I say something,” she said. “Dave is watching, you know. And he is. He’s always watching. I just didn’t want to live under that cloud.”
In mid-May, someone at Ramsey Solutions filed an anonymous complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that the company was not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a record of the complaint in OSHA’s database.
That led to an angry tirade from Ramsey during a staff meeting last May. After ranting about how the pandemic was affecting his golf game, he said the company had told OSHA it was not going to do anything in response to the complaint.
“So whoever you are, you moron, you did absolutely no good, except piss me off,” he told staff. “You are not welcome here if you are willing to do stuff like that. If you are really scared and you really think that leadership is trying to kill you … please, we love you. Just leave. We really don’t want you here.”
He warned employees not to contact anyone outside the building with their concerns.
“If you really think the people here are evil, bad people and you think that you can effect change by reaching outside of here, you are wrong,” he said. “And you are not welcome.”
Against the recommendation of his board not to address the OSHA complaint, Ramsey said he felt duty-bound to talk about it, because “I love this place and I really don’t want any morons here.” If he found out the person’s identity, he continued, “I will fire you instantaneously for your lack of loyalty, your lack of class, and the fact that you are a moron and you snuck through our hiring process,” he said.
Then he went on to tell employees how much he loved them and how Ramsey Solutions was still the best workplace in the world.
Rachel Self did not buy it.
A former user-experience designer at Ramsey, Self said Jon Fulk’s firing was a sign that something was wrong at the company. “That was proof to me that they meant what they said about some of these threats,” she said. “He was just gone.”
Self, who grew up in a Southern, evangelical home where her mom was a big Ramsey fan, said she had heard there had been issues at the company, but, like the Fulks, she liked the stable work environment and the company’s mission.
It was a chance, she said, to do something bigger than “just making a product people don’t need.” Besides, she said, “People were just kind. Exceedingly, glowing, Christian kind.”
Hired in January 2020, she was trained in the company’s 14 core values, which include having a “self-employed” mentality, never giving up and working “as unto the Lord.”
Co-workers asked her about her “Dave story”: a tale about how Ramsey had changed their life.
“It was like asking, ‘How did you meet Jesus?’” she said.
Returning to the office during the pandemic, however, Self became uncomfortable with the level of risk. People would lean over her desk to talk with her without masks, paying no heed to social distancing. Wearing a mask in the office, she said, was seen as a sign of distrust in the company’s leaders.
She doesn’t blame Ramsey alone. “A lot of Christians these days think COVID is not real,” she said. “I think that’s the underpinning problem.”
Amy Fritz, a Christian writer from Spring Hill, Tennessee, whose husband, Nathan, worked for Ramsey from 2012 to 2019, said that long-term staffers learn to dismiss his rants as just Dave being Dave. They love the work and keep their heads down.
“I think you sort of get inoculated to it,” Amy said.
It isn’t the Dave Ramsey she expected. Having read his EntreLeadership book, she said, “I thought, wow, here is a Christian businessman who works at a for-profit that’s about Jesus,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be part of that?”
During the interview process, Fritz said she was asked about the company’s famous gossip policy. Ramsey often described gossip as “when you discuss a negative with anyone who can’t solve the problem.” He is ruthless in rooting it out.
“We will not have it. I will fire your butt for this,” he boasted at a 2017 leadership event.
When the interviewer asked what she would do if her husband came home frustrated after work, Fritz said she would tell him to “talk to your leader.” At the time, Fritz said, she believed it.
While Nathan finished his interview, a member of the “Lampo Ladies,” a group of employee spouses, gave her a tour of Nashville. (Until a company rebrand in 2014, Ramsey Solutions was known as the Lampo Group.)
Her husband was offered the job but first the couple would have to submit a budget to show that they could live on the salary Ramsey offered.
It was a stretch, said Fritz, but the couple made it work. And the excitement of going to work for Ramsey overwhelmed any concerns they had.
“We felt like we were chosen,” she said.
After they moved, Nathan’s new co-workers showed up to help unload the couple’s moving van. The next day, more Lampo Ladies showed to unpack boxes and set up their home. For years, Fritz did the same for other new employees.
“They just provided this awesome sense of community,” said Fritz, who would eventually serve as a volunteer administrator for the Lampo Ladies Facebook group and encouraged wives of employees to join. “Nathan felt like he was going to Disneyworld every day.”
Doubts about the company began to creep in only after a 2014 incident that came to be known as “Twittergate.” After several anonymous Twitter accounts began to make fun of the company culture, the Daily Beast reported at the time, Dave Ramsey offered bounties during a staff meeting for anyone who would identify the tweeters.
The Daily Beast also reported that in 2011, Ramsey pulled out a gun to make a point about how much he hated gossip — a detail that a company official would later confirm in a deposition. Since that time, Ramsey has boasted to staff about carrying a gun at all times.
Fritz defended the company during Twittergate.
“Kind of bummed to see you tweet in support of an untrue hit piece. My husband works at Lampo. So, we actually know the truth,” she tweeted after the Daily Beast piece. The possibility that something was wrong at Ramsey, she told RNS, was too “horrible to consider.”
But she remembers thinking, “I don’t want people to see Dave’s character.” She also began to worry about the company’s merging of Christian mission and business opportunism. “When you mix faith, Christianity, and business, it can sometimes feel icky,” she said.
Some employees question how much of the culture at Ramsey Solutions is driven by Christianity and how much by a pursuit of profit.
In November 2018, as the company was gearing up for a multimillion-dollar book launch for Ramsey radio host Chris Hogan’s “Everyday Millionaires,” Hogan’s wife, Melissa, came to Ramsey leadership with allegations that Chris had been unfaithful to her.
The husband of a woman Chris had an affair with had begun to comment on Chris’ Twitter feed, responding to his tweets with Bible verses about adultery. Melissa Hogan believed that the allegations against her husband would become public.
Melissa told RNS in an email that she went to see Ramsey to discuss what to do. The company, she said, had been supportive of her and her husband after their youngest son was diagnosed with a rare disease. She also knew, given Ramsey’s outspoken stand against adultery, that coming forward could cost Chris his job and was concerned about the couple’s future.
“If their spouse can’t trust them, neither can I,” Ramsey wrote in “EntreLeadership,” and the company has been willing to defend its code of conduct in court.
In July 2020, Caitlin O’Connor, a former Ramsey Solutions employee, sued the company, claiming she had been fired after requesting maternity leave in the summer of 2020. According to the lawsuit, O’Connor emailed Lopez, the human resources chief, on June 18, 2020, asking for accommodations under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act because she was 12 weeks pregnant.
A week later, after meeting with two members of Ramsey’s operating board, O’Connor was fired for being pregnant and not married, according to the lawsuit. Board members and Lopez told her it was because she had violated the company’s code of conduct.
The lawsuit claims the company’s “righteous living” core value “discriminates against employees who do not strictly adhere to Ramsey’s interpretation of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values for non-work related behavior.”
Ramsey’s lawyers denied any discrimination. “Defendant admits that Plaintiff’s employment was terminated because she engaged in premarital sex,” which the company’s court filings said is a violation of its core values.
The day after news of the lawsuit broke, Ramsey defended the company’s policies during the company’s regular Wednesday “devo” meeting, a mandatory all-company chapel service.
Ramsey told employees that the policies were necessary to maintain a predictable, safe and “godly” culture. Without them, he said, Ramsey would be just like any other company, a “cesspool” of sex and racism and #MeToo complaints. Sex outside of marriage is wrong, he told employees, according to a recording obtained by RNS.
“Don’t talk to me about how you love your pastor and your church. And I just moved in with my boyfriend,” he said. “That’s so freaking inconsistent and stupid.”
People who disagree with company policies should leave, he said, because the company would not sanction “misbehavior.”
“And if you don’t like that, this is your cue,” he said. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, secular employers, especially larger ones, are generally barred from discriminating on the basis of religion and other factors. Federal law also bars discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
But at-will employment states such as Tennessee permit employers to fire employees for almost any reason, said Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Many companies have codes of conduct that bar behaviors also frowned on by religious groups.
Still, she said, there is a difference between a secular employer and a faith-based one. Secular employers like Ramsey, she said, are not exempt from Title VII, even if their owners are religious. A Christian boss such as Ramsey can’t require employees to share his beliefs or practice Christianity the way he does.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the owners of Hobby Lobby, who claimed their Christian faith prohibited them from paying for certain kinds of contraceptives. But that was a narrow ruling and very case-specific, said Hollman.
“There is no religious exemption under Title VII based on the piety of the owners,” she said.
Stuart Lark, a Colorado Springs attorney who advises nonprofits on personnel issues and religious accommodations, said that in recent years, the courts have supported the religious exercise rights of commercial employers.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has expressly held that employers do not forfeit their religious exercise rights when they enter the commercial marketplace,” said Lark. He thinks that for-profit companies whose owners have strong religious beliefs may be exempt from Title VII in some cases.
“It’s still an open question, and the answer may depend on whether the employer can establish that its activities and policies exercise or express its religious beliefs.” he said.
On his leadership blog, Ramsey has defended his rights to enforce a moral code and to fire people for things like extramarital affairs. “I’ve got a right to tell my employees whatever I want to tell them,” he wrote. “They freaking work for me.”
After RNS asked to interview Ramsey and Hogan and to request comment for this story, the company invited a reporter to attend a worship service entitled “Watch the Darkness Flee” at the company’s headquarters, where hundreds of team members gather in the building’s atrium to sing worship songs. Almost no one wore a mask. There was little social distancing.
“Ramsey, may we be those who trust him even in the day of trouble, because we know he is good,” one of the worship leaders said as the service drew to a close.
In the end, Ramsey did not fire Hogan. Instead, after a meeting that included the Hogans, leaders from their church and other members of the company’s board, the company set up a “restoration plan” for the couple’s marriage that would allow the book tour to go forward. After the tour, Chris would take time off to work on the couple’s marriage.
Melissa Hogan said she agreed with the plan at first but then became concerned at the level of control that Ramsey’s leadership wanted.
“In essence, as part of that process, we were to waive confidentiality with our therapists in order for them to report to Ramsey Solutions’ leaders,” she said in her email. “I now recognize that to be unhealthy, controlling, spiritually manipulative, and deeply wounding.”
According to emails obtained by RNS, the leadership at Ramsey offered to pay for marriage counseling, with “regular and full reports” from the counselor to Ramsey leadership. Dave also asked two of his colleagues to work with the pastor and elders at the church the Hogans attended to get reports on the couple.
When Melissa Hogan disagreed with parts of the Ramsey restoration plan, she was told that she “lacked hope for her marriage’s future” and lacked faith in the company’s wisdom. She was eventually barred from her husband’s book tour.
“During a process that was supposed to help restore our marriage, Ramsey Solutions’ board members attempted to manipulate and control me through emails and phone calls,” she said in her email. “They characterized their plan as aligning with the Holy Spirit and suggested that things would not ‘end well’ if I made choices to support healing in my marriage and family that either were not directed by them or decisions that they did not approve.”
Ramsey officials justified their approach by saying that working for the company was a “ministry and a mission,” and her husband had a “calling on his life.”
After the Hogans filed for divorce, Ramsey told employees in a May 2019 all-staff meeting that Chris Hogan was going through what Ramsey characterized as a “really nasty divorce” and that Melissa had shown up unannounced at his office to make angry and untrue allegations about her then-husband.
“Suffice to say, there are no angels on this story,“ he said.
Ramsey said that some staff had already begun to believe rumors that the leadership was somehow covering up misconduct on Chris Hogan’s part. Leadership, on the other hand, had put “rumor and innuendo aside” and focused on fact, he said.
“Looking at it, it was messy but there weren’t clear lines. And we said, OK, not because we are taking up for Chris because he’s getting ready to go on book tour but because there was not a clear line,” Ramsey told his employees at the staff meeting. “If there was a clear line, we would have taken the hit and canceled the book tour. But there wasn’t. And Chris wouldn’t be here anymore.”
Documents in the Hogans’ divorce filing tell a different story.
According to documents related to the divorce proceeding obtained by RNS, Chris Hogan admitted in March 2019 that he had committed adultery with multiple women during his marriage, including affairs with a former Ramsey co-worker and one of his wife’s relatives that lasted more than a year.
He admitted lying to his employer about the affair with the co-worker and about his relationships with “one or more women.” Hogan also admitted having oral sex, “sensual touching” and “sensual kissing” with one or more women during his marriage.
Melissa Hogan said she provided a statement to RNS because she disputed Ramsey’s retelling of her interactions with company leaders.
“During his remarks at the May 2019 staff meeting, Dave Ramsey also publicly mischaracterized my actions during the ensuing process as involving anger, hyperbole, and drama,” she said. “The fact is that I repeatedly expressed to them my support and concern for my husband, my marriage, our testimony as believers, and the truth.”
She added: “The trauma I experienced from my interactions with Ramsey Solutions’ leadership was significant, given their public image and their conflicting and controlling communications with me.”
Chris Hogan did not respond to a request for comment.
At the May 2019 staff meeting, Ramsey told his employees,“If you are worrying about our integrity in leadership and are we covering up for (Hogan) because he is a big brand, the answer is no. No.”
For Fritz’s husband, though, the company’s handling of the Hogan situation was the last straw, his wife told RNS. For years, company leaders had fired team members for violating the code of conduct, even for minor offenses. Now, Fritz said, the rules didn’t seem to apply.
Fritz’s husband and a number of his colleagues eventually quit over the situation. “God has used this organization to do some wonderful things and bring hope to many,” Fritz said in a now-deleted blog post after her husband left. “It broke our hearts to see some of the rot behind the curtain and that it appeared to go all the way to the top.”