CBS Corporation has recently learned two very valuable lessons about the cost of sexual harassment in the workplace. On the positive side, CBS announced yesterday that it would refuse to pay terminated CEO Les Moonves the $120 million “exit payout” he was potentially eligible to receive following his termination. On the negative side, CBS agreed to pay actress Eliza Dushka $9.5 million to settle her allegations that she was subjected to sexual harassment by Michael Weatherly, the star of the CBS series “Bull.” Ms. Duska raised complaints about his conduct and comments, no investigation or corrective action ensued, and she was thereafter written out of the show. There are important lessons to learn about the cost of sexual harassment from each of these decisions.
Executives Found to Have Engaged in Sexual Harassment Must Pay the Price
The CBS Board, following an extensive investigation conducted by two prestigious law firms in which over 300 witnesses were interviewed, decided that there was ample “cause” for Chairman and CEO Moonves’ termination. This was based not only on multiple credible allegations of serious harassment over years, but also his evasive and uncooperative involvement in the investigation.
It is typical that substantial severance payments are conditioned, contractually, on the departing executive not engaging in conduct which provides cause for termination. While the details of what establishes cause depend largely on the language of the contract, substantiated allegations of sexual harassment (a violation of civil and sometimes criminal law) will generally meet whatever definition applies.
This decision by the CBS Board will likely be challenged by Moonves in litigation, which the company should be prepared to litigate to judgement, given the stakes involved. Regardless of the outcome, this decision sends an unmistakable message to corporate America: hold sexual harassers accountable for their conduct, no matter the level of leadership. When this occurs consistently, leadership behavior will begin to change as harassers begin to bear some of the cost of this conduct.
Take Sexual Harassment Allegations seriously and DON’T RETALIATE
The Weatherly harassment settlement illustrates an equally important development and impact of the increased awareness on sexual harassment issues that the #metoo movement has brought. When complaints arise in the workplace, investigate thoroughly, take prompt and appropriate corrective action, and don’t tolerate any actions against the complaining party which could be interpreted as retaliatory. Had CBS effectively addressed Ms. Duska’s initial complaints about Mr. Weatherly sexually harassing comments toward her, which should have included stern corrective action against him, this significant payout could have been avoided entirely.
The Cost of Sexual Harassment is Vast
The true cost of sexual harassment goes far beyond the lessons learned from these two examples. A work environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, even condoned, cannot be a productive environment for not only the targets of harassment, but for individuals who witness the harassment and understand the unambiguous message this sends: You are not truly valued, and we will allow you to be “sexualized” in this environment.
Companies that don’t learn the lesson that harassment in any form needs to be eradicated from the workplace are ensuring that a significant component of their workforce will not be able to contribute to their fullest potential – a far greater cost than the liability (and litigation costs) created by this conduct in terms of claims which can and will be raised.
Schaefer Halleen lawyers understand this cost, and are committed to doing our part to vindicate the rights of targets of sexual harassment. We are available for a free consultation to assist you in determining whether you have been subject to harassment or retaliation in the workplace, and can develop a strategy for proving the case, usually on a contingent fee basis (i.e. you pay nothing for legal fees until a favorable result is achieved by settlement or judgment).
Lawrence P. Schaefer has earned the respect of judges and other lawyers for his thorough and aggressive client advocacy in negotiation and litigation. He focuses exclusively on representing people who have been subject to employment discrimination at work. Larry serves as the firm’s President and head of litigation.