Sexual harassment charges in a company can cause not only the victims but the business great pain. That's to say nothing of the major reputational and career damage.

Many who subsequently lost their jobs or were suspended from work -- Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Mario Batali, for example -- have apologized, or at least expressed "regret." They explicitly or implicitly admit major aspects of the criticism and accusation.

But increasingly, in the heat to turn out bad actors, there are cases in which the accused claims charges are utterly unwarranted. Denial puts companies into a difficult position and can spell potential ethical and legal trouble if HR processes aren't mature and management acts with too much haste.

Ryan Lizza is, or was until the other day, a staff reporter at the New Yorker, as well as a CNN contributor. He was fired for "improper sexual conduct," as a statement from the New Yorker  said. It further mentioned there would be no further comment  "due to a request for privacy."

The magazine -- part of Condé Nast, a company old and large enough to have established and experienced HR policies and staff -- put itself into a bind. The allegation is grave and yet, because of "privacy," it wouldn't go any further. A lawyer representing the woman who accused Lizza also called it misconduct, but Lizza has categorically denied the claim to a number of media outlets.

"I am dismayed that The New Yorker has decided to characterize a respectful relationship with a woman I dated as somehow inappropriate," he said. "The New Yorker was unable to cite any company policy that was violated. I am sorry to my friends, workplace colleagues, and loved ones for any embarrassment this episode may cause. I love The New Yorker, my home for the last decade, and I have the highest regard for the people who work there. But this decision, which was made hastily and without a full investigation of the relevant facts, was a terrible mistake."

Most HR departments will not mention why an employee is fired, certainly if allegations aren't public, because it is dangerous. If the investigation was not thorough and fair -- if behavior did not breach company rules or an employment contract -- the organization runs the risk of facing a lawsuit, whether for wrongful termination or defamation.

In public radio, NPR station WBUR in Boston put syndicated radio show On Point host Tom Ashbrook on leave for charges that included "name calling and belittling critiques of show ideas during meetings" and "'creepy' sex talk, hugs and back or neck rubs after a dressing down" from a group of 11 people, mostly younger women, according to a WBUR news report.

From a managerial and legal aspect, there were also allegations that station management repeatedly heard these charges but failed to take action, in one case coaching an employee how to "stand up to Tom." When asked about the claimed lack of action on the part of the station, General Manager Charlie Kravetz told the WBUR reporter that "while I would like to respond to your questions it would be inappropriate for me to comment while an investigation is underway."

A major responsibility of upper management in any organization is to teach and coach other managers how to work with employees. Yelling and belittling can be endemic in many industries (I've worked in trucking, restaurants, and construction in years past and have seen it first hand). But they are rarely effective, particularly if the approaches become the norm.

If someone is managing badly, you take them aside and coach them on how to do it correctly. If you don't attempt to correct the issue, you're condoning it. Firing or suspending someone when you've ignored their actions over time and perhaps have not documented them in official warnings and performance evaluations is at least bad practice and ethically challenged. At worse, it might again put the organization in a weak legal position.

With the current public attention to the vast problem of sexual harassment and abuse, it is understandable how organizations are concerned and ready to take action. However, a knee-jerk response without the benefit of prudent management practices is dangerous.

Running an investigation into harassment allegations is difficult, as my colleague Suzanne Lucas, an HR expert, has noted. Get expert help, specifically from an experienced labor and employment law attorney. Be sure the person in charge of any investigation is knowledgeable and experienced. Speak with everyone including the accused. You want to protect your employees -- all of them -- as well as your business and reputation.

Published on: Dec 12, 2017
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