Sex-Misconduct Cases Show Companies Finally Taking This Crisis Seriously

Thom Weidlich 12.07.17


Especially with NBC’s firing of star anchor Matt Lauer, we are seeing companies finally take the scourge of sexual harassment and similar misconduct seriously. That’s a welcome change from (literally) decades of settling lawsuits and sweeping them under the non-disclosure rug. But the fact is, companies should treat most crises with this level of seriousness.

What the Lauer and other situations, such as that involving actor Kevin Spacey, show is that these crises need to be dealt with immediately and with finality. NBC fired Lauer last week after accusations from several women of inappropriate behavior in the workplace — but rumors about him had apparently been circling for years (NBC’s shifting statements on what it knew about that didn’t help). Similarly, Netflix threw Spacey off of House of Cards and he was replaced in a movie he’d already shot. 

What has changed is companies’ attitudes that they can get away with not publicizing these episodes. The case that broke the sex-harassment trend wide open was that of movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Reporting has made clear that Weinstein and his advisers at first thought they could kill the in-progress articles about his sexual misbehavior. No doubt, that has been the impulse of many companies. But that is changing.

Think about what we know about the years of sexual harassment at Fox News, which predated the Weinstein revelations. Many of those cases ended with confidential settlements — including (we learned recently) one for $32 million from now-ex-host Bill O’Reilly. We doubt that confidentiality will be Fox News’ approach going forward.

Companies that employ the newly accused may be learning from Fox News’ experience. After former host Gretchen Carlson sued CEO Roger Ailes for sex harassment in July 2016, the network launched an investigation, and within weeks Ailes resigned.

The attitude change stems in part from companies knowing that the recent and massive attention on the issue means that the public will watch how quickly and appropriately they respond to such accusations against employees. It is also unusual to have so many companies facing the same type of crisis at once.

‘Days, Not Months’

A recent Los Angeles Times article was headlined “Why Companies and Media Organizations Are Taking Days, Not Months, to Act on Sexual Allegations.” It uses the example of former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, about whom rumors circled for a decade before he was fired, in 2014. “What has changed is the pressure that employers feel under right now to move quicker, to be more decisive with the decisions and, in some cases, to publicize their actions,” employment lawyer Stephen Hirschfeld told the Times.

The paper quoted another employment lawyer, Sharon Vinick: “For someone to be accused on Monday and fired on Wednesday, that’s unheard of in a pre-Harvey Weinstein world. You just never saw that speed of action before.”

On Nov. 29, the same day NBC fired Lauer, Minnesota Public Radio axed Garrison Keillor, saying it had been notified of inappropriate behavior just the previous month. On Nov. 20, The Washington Post reported that eight women accused  journalist Charlie Rose of inappropriate behavior; the next day, CBS, PBS, and Bloomberg all ended their relationships with him.

That kind of rapid response requires companies to think ahead, including having a crisis communications plan in place and training on that plan so it can be executed quickly.

Companies are seeing how much these allegations can damage their reputations. They want to publicize that they are doing the right thing — and doing it quickly. All organizations should take (almost) all crises just as seriously.

Photo Credit: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

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