Wednesday’s firing of Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor from Minnesota Public Radio are igniting discussions in workplaces across the United States. Lauer’s abrupt downfall comes amid a head-spinning series of harassment and abuse claims that have toppled powerful men in journalism, comedy, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. As allegations of sexual harassment come out against both high profile and regular employees, companies are being forced to look at some real questions when it comes to discipline and termination.
John Alan Doran is a partner at the law firm Sherman & Howard and has over 25 years of experience counseling and successfully representing employers in all facets of labor and employment law matters. He regularly represents employers in mass employment, wage/hour class and collective action litigation, as well as employment discrimination, public accommodations discrimination, and wrongful termination litigation. He says companies should not be so quick to fire an employee based on allegations alone. He explains:
The #metoo movement is growing daily, as high-profile celebrities, politicians, and leaders of industry get called out by alleged victims. It is critically important for employers to react, but not overreact, to the movement. When confronted with a harassment claim, an employer should not rush to judgment, nor should an employer cave amidst the weight of numerous complainants. The key was and still is to conduct a very prompt, thorough investigation that reaches solid conclusions based on the facts available. The tabloids seem to suggest that employers caught up in the #metoo controversy are rushing to judgment, simply firing these high-profile figures before hearing them out. This is undoubtedly more fact than fiction—well-informed employers conduct comprehensive investigations prior to reaching any conclusion.
Given the extraordinarily short period of time between the complaint and the termination, the Matt Lauer situation may be an exception to the rule that an employer should conduct a comprehensive investigation before taking disciplinary action. However, every rule has its exceptions. In this case, while we are speculating, it is likely that Lauer’s accuser presented the network with undeniable evidence of misconduct, rendering any further investigation unnecessary. In this day of emailing and texting, this will often be the case.
The #metoo movement is not limited to high-profile names in the news. The movement, by its very nature, is one of empowerment. Alleged victims of harassment now see an environment conducive to calling out an alleged harasser and less receptive to victim shaming. This empowerment will invariably work itself into most places of employment.
The #metoo movement is making an important and much-needed statement. Victims of sexual harassment must feel free to come forward in an environment free from ostracism or retribution. The movement has given alleged victims a voice and the moral high ground to call out alleged harassers. But as with any movement, #metoo presents certain real risks that require employer vigilance. For example, given the swift and near-blinding discipline imposed on many of these celebrities in the news, there is a perverse motivation for non-victims to falsely claim they are victims to either to obtain compensation or to retaliate against a boss or co-worker for some otherwise-lawful slight.
Likewise, there is some indication that the movement may dramatically lower the bar for what is considered sexual harassment beyond what the law provides. For example, some complaints involve a boss who was or is a screamer or just plain mean. Our anti-harassment laws were never intended to become general workplace civility codes, but there is some risk that the laws will morph into precisely that.
Reportedly, several women complained to NBC executives about Lauer’s behavior, to no avail given the lucrative advertising surrounding “Today.” For most of Lauer’s tenure, the morning news show was number one in the ratings, and executives seemed eager to keep him happy.
Ironically, big names in Hollywood and the media continue to fall from the flood of sexual misconduct charges. But in Washington, politicians facing similar complaints remain in office. As of today, NBC had received at least three complaints related to Mr. Lauer. The former “Today” host has apologized for any pain his actions caused. He acknowledges the depth of the damage and disappointment he leaves behind, but says not all of the accusations are true.
In light of these accusations and the growing #metoo movement, it is vital that employers understand the weight of their role if sexual harassment claims arise. They must take the accusations seriously, but not overreact without the proper investigation process.
By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
Sherman & Howard Law Firm: John Alan Doran
New York Times: Matt Lauer Apologizes After Firing Over Sexual Misconduct Claims
Variety: Matt Lauer Accused of Sexual Harassment by Multiple Women (EXCLUSIVE)
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Featured Image Courtesy of Andrew Dallos’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License