Over the last few months, many sexual harassment victims have come forward. But perhaps no story has been as surprising as the firing of Matt Lauer. Part of this comes from how quickly NBC dealt out his punishment. One morning he was on the air, and the next he was gone.
Then there's the fact that many of his colleagues describe Lauer as beloved. When announcing his termination, Savannah Guthrie, Lauer's co-host of five years, expressed confusion.
"We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks: How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly and I don't know the answer to that," she said on last Wednesday's Today show.
Many people have a similar reaction when they discover a close co-worker is capable of terrible acts. You often can't predict if an employee is going to cross a line. But how you react to the situation can affect how the rest of the team recovers. Whether it's sexual harassment or other unacceptable behavior, these four tips will help you react effectively:
1. Stop asking if the complainant is crying wolf.
America has a horrible habit of victim blaming. When a woman comes forward with a story about sexual assault, people question her behavior. When a person of color reports racism, others wonder if they're being overly sensitive. This mentality obstructs positive change.
As a result, many incidents go unreported because victims worry about retaliation or being called a liar. This is why every complaint should be taken seriously -- even if it's against a beloved employee. Otherwise, no one will come forward with sensitive information.
"The company's policy about a lack of tolerance should be emphasized with all employees," said Jay Starkman, CEO of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based HR solution company Engage PEO. "The complaint should never be prejudged."
Let all employees know what process is in place to report unacceptable behavior. Knowing what steps follow a complaint will put people's fears about coming forward at ease.
2. Proceed with caution.
These situations are often uncomfortable. As a leader who cares about employees, you don't want to think about letting a good employee go.
To remain fair, Kerry Alison Wekelo, the Reston, Virginia-based managing director of human resources and operations of the corporate financial consultancy Actualize Consulting, suggests bring in a third party to investigate.
"We always recommend there be written proof as well," she went on to say. "The key here is to train teams up front on what is sexual harassment, the company's policy on termination, how to file a complaint, and what evidence is required."
3. Resist aftermath gossip.
When the crimes like Lauer's come to light, everyone wants details. But while your employee might be well-liked, they aren't a celebrity. They deserve some privacy.
"Most employees' workplace transgressions and resulting terminations will not become national news," said Boston-based leadership and human resource consultant Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio. "Therefore, it is not necessary in most cases for the reasons for their termination to be addressed publicly."
Inform other employees just like you would with any other termination. Let them know that their co-worker acted in a way that wasn't representative of the company's values. As long as these expectations are clear, employees need no other details.
"It's hard to get around the shock of learning new, disturbing facts about someone you know," said the Oklahoma City-based author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work, Piyush Patel. "The repercussions of those facts shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone in your company, though."
4. Don't ignore their pain.
When a situation leads to an unexpected firing, employees feel confused. Help them deal with their conflicting emotions.
"Just because a friend did something bad doesn't mean that everything about them is bad," said Linda Adams, a partner at Denver-based business consultancy The Trispective Group. "There can still be much about that person you might appreciate while finding their behavior, in this instance, totally unacceptable."
Provide employees with the right resources. If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), remind everyone that they have access to help.
Shawn Casemore, the president and founder of the Chatsworth, Ontario-based leadership consultancy Casemore & Co., sees these situations as a way to engage other employees.
"The reality is most employees know the difference between what's right and what's wrong," he said. "Asking how they might deal with a similar situation, or what actions they take to ensure these situations do not occur, empowers employees to self-identify their own course of actions."
Without sharing too many details, use these incidents to revisit company values. This will allow employees to reevaluate how they are upholding company beliefs every day.