Companies now quick to act on allegations
Delay in responding to harassment scandals may cast them as uncaring or evasive
Lurid allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment lawsuits swirled for years around former American Apparel founder and Chief Executive Dov Charney.
As early as 2004, a reporter from Jane magazine wrote that Charney masturbated in front of her. (Charney has asserted that the act was consensual. In a follow-up story, the reporter said she was not a victim and was not exploited.) A year later, former employees filed lawsuits that claimed he fondled himself in front of them or appeared in the office only in his underwear.
It wasn’t until summer 2014 that the Los Angeles company’s board suspended Charney as president and CEO, citing allegations of improper behaviour and misuse of company funds. By the end of the year, Charney was officially fired.
That was then. In today’s post-Harvey Weinstein era, employers are taking days, rather than months, to deal with accusations of sexual misconduct.
The accelerated responses to harassment scandals reflect a calculation by organisations that any delay could cast them as uncaring or evasive — and land them on the wrong side of social media and news reports swirling around each new scandal.
“You want to report your bad news,” said Tracy Williams, chief executive and founder of Olmstead Williams Communications, a crisis and reputation management firm based in Los Angeles. “If somebody else reports it, then it looks like you’ve been hiding, which is the worst thing you can do.”
On Wednesday morning, NBC reported its own bad news first — abruptly announcing that Today show co-anchor Matt Lauer had been fired after the network received a detailed complaint on Monday about “inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace.” Entertainment trade publication Variety later reported that Lauer had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women.
That same day, Garrison Keillor said he was fired by Minnesota Public Radio after the news organisation said it was notified last month of allegations of inappropriate behaviour while Keillor was responsible for producing A Prairie Home Companion.
The latest responses are not only swift but, in many cases, sweeping. Minnesota Public Radio said it would stop rebroadcasting The Best of A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Keillor, and end distribution
and broadcast of his show, The Writer’s Almanac.
Netflix halted production of its hit series House of Cards amid allegations that actor Kevin Spacey had committed harassment and assault — in some cases toward minors — and Sony Pictures dropped the actor from his lead role as J. Paul Getty in the upcoming film All the Money in the World. Spacey’s scenes were re-shot with actor Christopher Plummer.
And not only did political journalist Mark Halperin lose his job at NBC after allegations of sexual harassment, but Penguin Press pulled the plug on his book about the 2016 presidential election.
“The process of analysing allegations and making determinations about misconduct hasn’t changed,” said Stephen Hirschfeld, founding partner and co-managing partner at employment and higher education law firm Hirschfeld Kraemer. “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 publicise their actions.”
Companies have a number of reasons to act quickly. The heightened public sensitivity to sexual misconduct after the Weinstein scandal means that brands’ reputations — and their market value — could take a hit if consumers deem that firms aren’t taking allegations seriously.
“We really are in a period where there’s heightened consumer awareness, in general, of companies’ social policies, their environmental policies,” said Rosemary Batt, the Alice Cook professor of women and work at Cornell University.
The process of analysing allegations and making determinations about misconduct hasn’t changed. What has changed is the pressure that employers feel under right now to move quicker, to be more decisive with the decisions.” Stephen Hirschfeld | Founding partner at Hirschfeld Kraemer
Participants rally outside CNN’s Hollywood studios on Sunset Boulevard to take a stand against sexual assault and harassment for the #MeToo March in Los Angeles.