How to handle sexual misconduct without ruining your company’s image

I watch Screen Junkies a lot. Hal Rudnick’s show on what is going in the world of movies is fun, as Hal is a very entertaining guy, the honest trailers can be absolutely hilarious, and movie fights is a show lasting about an hour and a half that is perfect for me and my husband to watch together while relaxing over a healthy lifestyle-destroying take away. I was therefore quite saddened when the anchor of the show, Andy Signore, became embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct yesterday. Sex predators in media, particularly in Hollywood, are nothing new. The phrase “the casting couch“, meaning the trading of sexual favours for promotion or a career break, originated in the American movie industry. Only the other day allegations surfaced against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, showing the problem still remains endemic in this particular industry.

A brief outline on what Andy Signore is alleged to have done can be found in this tweet here. Since then a number of other women have come forward with allegations against Andy Signore, and they all present a very clear picture of a man with boundary issues to say the least. But in at least one case he apparently used his position as a senior figure of Screen Junkies in an attempt to persuade a young female intern to perform sexual favours for him.

April, one of the complainants, went to the HR department of Defy Media with her story, along with two other women. But according to April the HR department responded by trying to sweep these allegations under the rug. Did they really? They apparently didn’t contact April for over a month after she made her allegations to them, and only picked them back up after she went public. They also apparently did not interview the other women who made allegations. With that information in mind – yes, in my capacity as a human resources expert, who has handled such cases in the past, I would say with confidence that Defy Media’s HR department did indeed hope this situation would just go away by ignoring it.

So how should they handle this? What does a professional HR outfit do when facing allegations of sexual misconduct against employees? There are several things that you should immediately keep in mind, and these should inform every action you take from here on out:

  • Get as much information as you can at the outset, including where possible, corroborating emails, text messages etc. Write down what the complainant says very carefully and accurately, without omissions. Sloppy record keeping here will return to haunt you. You also need to make sure that all data protection rules involving obtaining, storing and use of information are complied with.
  • Any such allegations need to be treated with due care, consideration and the utmost professionalism. This is extremely important no matter how trivial the complaint may first appear.
  • Your job as HR is not to moralize, pre-judge or take sides.
  • Your job is not to go outside policies or procedures to protect a particular person or party, no matter how important they may be to your organization, up to and including the CEO.
  • Your job is to see to it that the law of the land and the policies of the company are applied and appropriate action is taken if it is necessary.

The first step in dealing with this is to speak to the complaining party about their options. Explain to them what the company policy is, as well as their legal rights, regarding this matter. Your very first instinct may be to offer comfort and support to the complainant. Whilst you should do what you can to make the complainant feel safe and secure, you should also be mindful that your role is not to become this persons champion, so some professional distance is advised. In the case of serious sexual allegations warranting criminal proceedings, the job of comforting and counselling should be ideally done by a qualified professional, as serious sexual assault counselling is not in the remit of HR. But as far as their work situation goes, you should remain neutral. Even in the event of overwhelming evidence one way or the other you shouldn’t push or try to persuade the complainant to do anything. The ultimate decision on whether or not to escalate matters or let it drop should be theirs to make after they’ve been given the options available to them.

Should the person want to make a formal complaint the next step is to make every effort to separate the parties if at all possible. If the allegations are of a serious nature and splitting them up isn’t feasible, suspension of the party being complained against may be warranted. Suspension of the accused party may also be advisable if there is a possibility of them impacting the investigation by remaining in the workplace. It should be noted that suspension is a neutral act and is not a taking of sides or a presumption of guilt.

The next thing you should do is appoint an independent investigator. This isn’t a legal requirement in most countries, but in some countries it is, directly or indirectly. For example in Germany a company doesn’t have to undertake an internal investigations into matters of misconduct, but there are financial penalties for failing to investigate something which later becomes important. In Italy there is only a requirement to “verify facts” before acting which may not require much investigating at all. In the case of Screen Junkies and Defy Media, which operates in the United States, companies are obliged by law to swiftly investigate and, if warranted, rectify the matter immediately.

Regardless of the legal position it always pays to have a competent person who can handle sensitive matters investigate what has happened when such complaints are made. A properly handled investigation will produce a report that consists of the following items; the process of investigation, a list of evidence gathered, witness statements, findings of the investigation including highlights of all key facts (including distinguishing between substantiated and unsubstantiated allegations) and finally a conclusion. Such a report will be absolutely vital going forward. All future actions, and possible consequences arising from those actions, will stem from the quality and thoroughness of the report that the investigation yields. You should also keep all parties properly informed throughout the process. You don’t need to tell them about findings or about what information you have, but you do need to make sure they are aware that the situation is under review and enquiries are proceeding.

Whilst HR can do the investigation themselves, I advise against this. HR are going to be involved in every single stage of this process. Being the investigator, judge, jury, and executioner naturally is a very poor structure of arbitration in any society. The role of HR is to see that each stage is properly adhered to, not to perform these actions themselves. Furthermore, if you have been heavily involved in the investigation, it may influence your advice and decision making at subsequent stages of the process. In the United States, for senior members of staff whether accusations are of a sexual nature or not, a private external investigator is often appointed to mitigate any accusations of favouritism or bias later.

From the information published by the complainants so far, in the case of Defy Media and Screen Junkies, it appears that an investigation was not carried out at all, or at the very most handled sloppily. If true this has not only compounded the bad publicity they wished to avoid, but has also exposed Defy Media to further legal problems and possibly large financial penalties. Following the complainants going public Defy Media have now made a statement on the matter but this is too little and way too late.

Once an investigation has been completed the case should be reviewed to see if it warrants any further action. The type of action to be taken will rest almost entirely on the outcome of the investigation. In the case of sexual allegations it virtually always warrants further action. Ultimately it should be a decision maker and not the investigator or HR who decide whether the matter should proceed to a disciplinary hearing, and what subsequent actions should occur following the hearing. There is a tendency in the popular press to treat all allegations of sexual misconduct as being of the same level of severity. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Context means an awful lot in these sorts of cases. Telling an off colour joke about big boobs, spoken in a room with a handful of other people and not particularly directed towards anyone, is very different than catching someone alone and making the same joke directly towards them. While both could still amount to misconduct/sexual harassment one circumstance is more egregious than the other. Both, however, are very different from a senior employee of a company behaving a predatory manner to a junior employee, hinting at swift promotion for sexual favours but threatening potential dismissal for rejection. All cases above warrant action, but not the same level of action. The type of action taken here will depend largely on the law wherever you are well as company policies. Also remember that the feelings of the complainant and how they perceive the event matter a great deal. If he or she feels something was inappropriate, it was inappropriate.

According to the allegations made by April against Andy Signore, the sexual harassment is definitely of the more serious kind. Regardless of the law in the case I have no doubt that, if these allegations are upheld, Mr Signore will be dismissed from the company. No company wants this sort of media attention, but as an entertainment business with a strong requirement for brand recognition this company simply can not afford to have this sort of publicity. I am frankly amazed they tried to deal with it in the manner that they apparently did, as it has exacerbated rather than reduced the damage to their public image. A proper investigation, making sure the people behind the allegations felt they were being taken seriously, followed by swift action if necessary, all handled professionally, might have actually yielded positive publicity in the medium to long term. Defy Media have instead joined Fox News and Uber in tarnishing their reputation with an anachronistic approach to sexual harassment allegations.

If you work for HR then one common element to this particular blog entry you have probably picked up on is that you’re not to take sides, encourage or discourage a particular course of action, or in any way influence things according to your own view on matters. The HR department has to be seen as a safe space for everyone. If someone has been a victim of sexual harassment they need to be confident they can take it up with HR without fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, disbelieved, losing their job, or damaging their career. Likewise, if someone has been the subject of malicious or false allegations, behaviour that is mildly inappropriate but not threatening or sexual, or a simple misunderstanding, they also need to be confident that their HR department will deal with the situation in a professional and sensitive manner. We can at least say that the HR department of Defy Media did not do this task, and as a result their company now has a serious PR problem on its hands.

There is also an important career lesson in this for everyone. Don’t be a horny idiot at work, and don’t use your position at work as a means of getting laid. Andy Signore tried and his career lies in tatters. It isn’t worth the risk. And if you’re a manager in a company, and allegations of sexual misconduct come to light, do not try to ignore them. It can destroy your brand, cost you a fortune in legal settlements and expenses, drive good employees away, and make it much harder to replace them. Once again, it isn’t worth the risk.

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