When sexual harassers lose power and money

#MeToo is facing an arresting new moment.CBS chief executive Les Moonves lost his job this week after...

Posted: Sep 14, 2018 9:31 AM
Updated: Sep 14, 2018 9:31 AM

#MeToo is facing an arresting new moment.

CBS chief executive Les Moonves lost his job this week after 24 years at the network, taken down by a second New Yorker article, this one detailing new allegations of sexual assault and harassment claims from six women. He has long been one of the most powerful men in media.

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There have reportedly been additional complaints from "dozens of others" about a culture of sexual misconduct at the company. And on Wednesday, CBS also announced the departure of another network titan, "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager, for violating company policy on a matter, according to the president of CBS News, David Rhodes, "not directly related to the allegations surfaced in press reports."

The violation involved a threatening text message that Fager sent to Jericka Duncan, one of the CBS reporters who has been covering the fallout from the New Yorker article, which included accusations against Fager himself of unwanted touching. He has staunchly denied the accusations.

As part of Moonves' departure, CBS maintains he will not receive any of his exit compensation — reported to be in excess of $100 million in stock — while an independent investigation into the sexual misconduct claims is completed. That investigation presumably would influence the decision about how much, if any, compensation he will receive.

The network also says it will donate $20 million to organizations that support the #MeToo movement, and that if the allegations against Moonves bear out, that money will be deducted from any severance he gets.

And here we confront a new wrinkle to consider as we move — definitively, one hopes — into an era where #MeToo awareness touches off real institutional changes. How to create a powerful disincentive for potential abusers and enablers? Who pays?

For example, even with the $20 million diverted from any severance, in theory Moonves could potentially leave with tens of millions in funds that many argue would unjustly serve to "reward" a man accused of doing very bad things. And can you blame them? Even if the full range of accusations he faces are not validated in the investigation, wouldn't any one of them be justification for an employer to deny such an employee a payout?

Among other things, Moonves has been accused over decades of allegedly forcing women to perform oral sex on him and retaliating if they refused. Why give him anything at all?

It's a valid question, certainly, but the answer isn't as obvious as one might think.

To begin, there's no question that sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong on every level, and that men who do it deserve to be held accountable. But as Gayle King pointed out on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday, we don't yet have all the facts. And issuing judgments based on facts is what will ensure #MeToo and other movements retain credibility and, by extension, impact.

As King said, "Les Moonves has been on the record, he says, listen, he didn't do these things, that it was consensual, that he hasn't hurt anybody's career. I would think it would be in his best interests for us to hear what the report finds out."

What's more, King noted that it's rare for women to recount what are invariably painful, humiliating experiences without cause.

"It's been my experience that women don't come out and speak this way for no reason," she said. "They just don't. They just don't do it."

What she is saying is true. But in our society (and legal system), we need to prove out what actually happened — even when it comes to allegations of offenses against women.

One could argue (and undoubtedly Moonves will) that Moonves has earned at least some severance — CBS, after all, has benefited from his tenure and leadership. What's more, stripping a man like Moonves of his power is a profound punishment. Is that enough? What is fair?

Let's look at the terms of his employment. Moonves' contract with CBS, available to the public through the US Securities and Exchange Commission website, states that he's entitled to nothing if he's fired for violating the company's anti-sexual harassment policies. But when these violations took place may matter. Moonves has acknowledged three of the encounters, but said they were consensual and occurred before he began work at CBS. Should that factor into what CBS does or doesn't pay him from his time with CBS?

As for the violations alleged during his time with CBS, the network's code of conduct says that sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" when submission to those advances and favors is made a condition of the person's employment or compensation.

From what we've heard from his accusers, it would seem that Moonves violated these policies without question. And yet, it's also become clear that his alleged behavior was not exactly news at his company: Reports say that some CBS board members were informed of the allegations but for some time did nothing about them and continued to support him.

And Moonves himself admitted that he forced himself on his doctor nearly 20 years ago. She reported it to her bosses at UCLA but says she was told to keep quiet.

Should that matter in the CBS decision? And, should individuals who potentially have a hand in enabling a sexual abuser's behavior within a company also pay a financial price? Fager, for example, has defended Moonves and denied the abuse accusations leveled by the women in the New Yorker articles. In his article, New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow also cited "nineteen current and former employees" who said Fager "allowed harassment in the division."

All of these questions show why one of the most important outcomes of the #MeToo movement should be that companies large and small — and executive contracts — clearly outline consequences for sexual impropriety, including financial punishment, and consider punishment for those who abet the behavior. Based on the known circumstances of his departure, it seems that in Moonves' case, his contract with CBS may potentially include the right to at least limited severance, depending on the results of the investigation.

But this leads to another question: Who gets whatever severance money that is denied him instead? CBS announced it will donate a portion of Moonves's severance to organizations that support #MeToo. Should other organizations — even those under less of a media spotlight -- whose employees are implicated in sexual misconduct routinely do the same? If Moonves is stripped of his severance, does CBS deserve to keep it?

It's hard to put a price tag on a woman's career prospects or her dignity, both of which, his accusers say, were damaged by Moonves. But it's important to be having these discussions about what men who harass or otherwise abuse women deserve or don't deserve from their employers. And how employers can better institutionalize self-policing and wider accountability.

Of course, in the end holding individual men accountable for their actions is about far more than money. It's about justice, about reclaiming power (and denying it to abusers), about speaking up for what is right — and against what is wrong -- so that it won't happen again. That process is finally underway and gaining strength in America and beyond.

And to be sure, it is satisfying to think of a sexual abuser publicly defenestrated — and leaving empty-handed to boot.

But the true victory lies in this: For a man like Les Moonves, money means a lot. But it's likely that losing his power is just as devastating.

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