Less than two weeks after Gretchen Carlson filed her harassment suit against Roger Ailes, the powerful chairman of Fox News is reported to be leaving his employer with a healthy severance package. We may never know what happened. Yet, if Ailes leaves now, his name will be attached to the sexually offensive, retaliatory and, potentially illegal conduct alleged by Ms. Carlson.
Ironically, on June 20th, the EEOC issued a report on harassment discussing ills which must be addressed in our workplaces. Among the problems identified is what the Commission referred to as “super harassers” — powerful individuals who act by their own standards. Many organizations refer to them as “untouchables”. I called them Big Shots when I wrote “Teaching Big Shots to Behave” 12 years ago.
However named, their knowledge, skills, reputation or political power (internal or external) insulate them from the rules that govern everyone else. Typically, their offenses are well known, but minimized or ignored. While anyone else would be quickly tossed out for their conduct, not them. They thrive.
Here’s the lesson that Roger Ailes may learn from his departure, and others should. The powerful are immune to the rules, until they are publicly unmasked. Then, they are as expendable as those they frequently diminished or retaliated against. There’s too much risk and too little benefit to treat them otherwise. So, they must go.
Leaders intent on building legal and professional workplaces should deal with “superstar harassers” before their behavior causes them long-term organizational and brand harm, even if it plays through a realtime media news bonanza.