Quitting Is for Quitters: And It Leads to Liability

Chief Executive of CBS Leslie Moonves stepped down on Sunday after a second article appeared in the New Yorker detailing allegations of sexual misconduct. When the first article came out, CBS agreed to look into the allegations but kept Moonves around while the investigations could take place. When six new women came forward with disturbing allegations, Moonves finally stepped down.

CBS will continue with their investigation into the allegations, but discussions of whether CBS’s problems will be “solved” now that Moonves has stepped down have led us to consider: is that enough?  Here’s the answer:

No.

No, an alleged harasser quitting his job is not a magical fix. To human resources professionals, this may seem intuitive and obvious.  But to much of the population, including stakeholders at major businesses, it may not be.  This can place human resources professionals in the very difficult position of having to push for an often messy, controversial, embarrassing, and expensive investigation that their supervisors just don’t want to conduct.

The Sales Pitch

So, how do we sell stakeholders on the importance of an investigation? They need to understand the risks to the organization that result from ignoring the problem.  Sexual harassment—especially of the severity that we see in the news—does not occur in a vacuum.  If the alleged misconduct is so severe that an employee feels compelled to resign his or her employment, you should assume that other employees within the business had some knowledge of what was occurring.  And that is a point of liability.  If one or more management-level employees was aware or even suspected that workplace harassment was occurring, and failed to escalate the situation to human resources so it could be investigated and addressed, the company many have liability for the harassing conduct, even after the alleged harasser resigns.  This should be a significant concern.

There are also very real morale considerations that support conducting an internal investigation. If one or more individuals have been forced to tolerate conduct that they perceived to be harassing, then feeling validated and supported within the workplace is very important to retaining the employee and helping them to feel safe and confident in the workplace again.  Completing an investigation, and validating some or all of the employee’s allegations, can be extremely helpful in this process.  Many employers are rightfully hesitant to produce a document that admits, in any way, that there was harassment or other unlawful conduct going on in the workplace.  But an admission is not necessary in order to support or validate employees who have been subjected to harassment.  Even something as simple as acknowledging that the alleged harasser behaved in an unprofessional manner, or crossed recognized social boundaries—without ascribing any intent—is enough.  And of course, the business should re-state its commitment to observing respectful boundaries between employees.

Finally, in the current environment, many male employees are feeling targeted and unrepresented, and worry about the impact of false allegations. In the face of such fears, an investigation may help to prevent retaliation and reassure all employees that the company is invested in a fair process, regardless of what an individual employee elects to do.  When an employee resigns without investigation, it often leads to speculation that the alleged harasser was “targeted” or forced to resign without any protection of his or her rights.  An investigation that substantiates the allegations of improper conduct can put such speculation to rest, and avoid any side-taking that might otherwise take place.

Bottom Line

It’s time that we put aside the idea that a public resignation “fixes” workplace misconduct. While it may resolve the issue of future harassment, it does nothing to address the questions of how the problem developed and evolved in the first place, whether the company faces any liability, and how to move forward in a productive and conscientious manner.  No one relishes the idea of a difficult investigation into uncomfortable topics, but companies should pursue a full understanding and explanation of how problems arose, so that they can be effectively avoided in the future.