Mon. Aug 20th, 2018

The Slippery Slope of Sexual Harassment

There are certain media stories you never want to be included in. One of them, which has become a national discussion and left numerous companies with stained reputations, and high profile personalities facing public humiliation and without employment, is sexual harassment.

During the past eighteen months, allegations have spread like wildfire, rocking sports and news media groups, the movie industry, the comedy world, and even the oval office. The subject itself may not be new, but the attention this time feels very different.

Let me be clear about a few key things before I dive deeper into this story. If anyone inside a workplace is using their power, wealth or influence to harm another person, either physically, mentally or emotionally, they deserve to be dealt with immediately and face severe consequences, including potentially losing their careers. I don’t care who you are, how much you make, or how important you are to the bottom line, if you’re incapable of being a professional and degrading, devaluing or physically taking advantage of another human being, those acts make you a scumbag and the type of person who a brand will be harmed by more than helped over the long haul.

But as someone who has managed five different radio brands, and worked at the largest sports media company in the world, I understand how certain pranks, comments and actions can be received differently by various members of an organization. I’ll try my best to explore a few angles and give you a couple of things to think about.

When I read the allegations made by Jami Cantor involving NFL Analysts Marshall Faulk, Warren Sapp, Ike Taylor, Donovan McNabb, Heath Evans and Eric Davis, and former NFL Network turned Ringer executive Eric Weinberger, I was sick to my stomach. If you haven’t read the Deadspin piece, take a few minutes to do so. It’ll allow you to get a better understanding of what Cantor says she was subjected to.

As I read each accusation I wondered how on earth those type of situations could be permitted inside of a professional media operation like the NFL Network. This wasn’t a case of one person accusing another of acting inappropriate, seven people were named in the story. Some may question why Cantor put up with the abuse for a lengthy period of time or if word about her tolerance for bullshit began to spread among the analysts but whether she was willing to turn the other cheek or tune out offensive remarks and actions, doesn’t mean she should’ve been subjected to them in the first place.

The second reaction I felt was disappointment. Being fully transparent, Eric Davis worked for me in San Francisco from 2011-2012. He conducted himself properly, cared about his show, developed a good professional relationship with me, and valued his family. His wife attended a few of our station events and was awesome. As I read the lawsuit and the parts which involved his name, I thought of my prior experiences with him and hoped the allegations weren’t true.

As I continued processing the details, I kept asking myself, why do television companies have so many problems creating a decent workplace environment? The medium itself hires people they consider ‘visual eye candy’, but that doesn’t mean individuals who choose careers in television have to accept an invitation to being personally violated or verbally degraded.

No matter what area of the entertainment industry you’re involved in, these types of problems gain steam when individuals and management blur the lines between personal and professional. Many forget that you’re inside of a workplace for one reason, to do a job. The second you begin to explore conversations with people that may or may not be comfortable to them, you’re rolling the dice on your future. You may find an audience internally that’s open to your dialogue, but if you say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, you’re automatically in the wrong, whether you see it that way or not.

One area of Cantor’s story that especially pissed me off was what she allegedly told Marc Watts, the NFL’s talent coordinator. After complaining about being subjected to inappropriate behavior, Watts reportedly told Cantor “it’s part of the job when you look the way you do.” If it turns out that Cantor’s claims are true, and that response from Watts is accurate, he should be terminated on the spot. That’s not managing people. That’s enabling misconduct.

If you look around the sports media industry, most television networks feature a mix of men and women working together. Sports radio stations on the other hand have less people involved, hence less females and males crossing paths and being in situations where issues like this develop. That doesn’t mean these things can’t rock the sports radio format too, it just means there are less chances due to smaller staffs and most positions being occupied by men.

The more I examine this issue, the more questions I have. Why is it that former players seem to be in the middle of many of these stories? The NFL Network lawsuit names six former players and one executive. We’ve also seen other recent stories mention ex-athletes such as Gregg Zaun, Warren Moon, and Pete Rose, and prior issues at major sports networks have involved former players and executives as well.

We’ve all heard stories of how teams placate star players because of their importance on the field or court. As long as a player can produce, the world is their oyster. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is the first example that comes to my mind.

The average fan on a couch watching a game and rooting for his/her team to win may not care if a star athlete receives preferential treatment and is allowed to operate in a fashion that’s professionally reprehensible, but that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated by team officials. Furthermore, when that type of behavior is enabled, it’s foolish to think a player will just turn it off once their career is over, especially when they move on to another high profile industry.

I’m not suggesting that every player turned analyst has a problem conducting themselves properly. That’s not the case at all. However, it’d be fair to say that many executives place a higher value on the guy who’s walked off the field and into their studio because they recognize how it can help increase ratings, revenue and a brand’s reputation with the audience. Many ex-athletes use that power wisely. Some unfortunately do not.

Next, when a person is elevated to an executive role, especially for the first time in their careers, they don’t come with built in instructions on how to manage. They often learn on the fly. Some are natural leaders who conduct themselves in a classy manner and exercise great style and judgement in hiring people, developing systems, and addressing problems. Others, take advantage of their power, think they’re untouchable, ignore red flags and lead with an iron fist.

Until you’re in charge of a brand and its staff, trusted with power, and standing in the crossfire of a chaotic situation involving someone you care about or have professional history with, it’s not something you can prepare for. A company can put you in a conference room and force you to watch a 30-60 minute video on sexual harassment, which has zero personal connection to you or your brand, and check off a box that says ‘the employee has received sexual harassment training’ but that just satisfies corporate expectations. It doesn’t solve the problem when it lands at your door.

I’ll share a brief personal story which I haven’t publicly discussed before. Earlier in my career I landed an opportunity at a radio station and was brought to an office to read some documents and watch a video on sexual harassment. I processed the information and then signed a document confirming that I received the materials.

Following that two hour training session, I was led to another building where I’d be working. I walked into it and on the walls were a number of posters of scantily clad and nude women. Considering I had just gone thru sexual harassment training, I thought to myself, ‘is this one of those moments where they’re trying to see how I’ll react and then tell me afterwards, Jason Barrett you’ve been Punk’d?”

As it turned out, it wasn’t a test. I didn’t pay much attention to it because radio back then ventured much more into dangerous content areas and produced its fair share of crazy characters. In fact, one individual at the station told me, “I have a tendency to break late, so if I get behind, take this purple rubber sex toy (which was located on the left side of the studio board inside a stack of equipment) and hit me in the head with it and I’ll take a break.” I responded by telling him “I won’t have to do that to get my point across and get us out on time.”

You’re probably reading that and thinking “WTF” but 15-20 years ago, things that would never be acceptable by today’s standards went largely ignored. I chalked it up to ‘boys being boys’ and focused on the work in front of me, and less on my visual surroundings or the odd behavior of one person. If that same situation occurred now and someone else was in my position, they’d probably file a lawsuit and that individual would either be suspended or terminated.

Another issue I want to address involves the reporting of an incident. First of all, it’s not my place or any executive’s place to put a deadline on when a victim must report an incident. Some come forward quickly. Some do not. If you’re the one living with a permanent scar, it should be up to you to decide if and when you’re comfortable discussing what happened to you. Just think of the boys who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State. Some wanted no part of reliving that nightmare, others wanted Sandusky to pay for his actions. Each situation impacts people differently.

That said, a few industry people I spoke to had mixed feelings about the Pete Rose situation. Each person I talked to agreed that what Rose did was inappropriate, but he also completed a professional baseball career, a public battle with MLB over gambling issues, and was hired and worked for FOX Sports on television, after dating an underage girl in the 1970’s. Had Rose conducted himself properly this never would’ve been a story. However, he didn’t. When news circulates four decades after the fact though, it does lead some to question, why now?

Ironically, that was the subject which Geraldo Rivera of FOX News came under fire for after tweeting about Matt Lauer losing his job at NBC. Rivera said sexual harassment allegations should be made in a timely fashion (within 5 years) and include proof such as witnesses or electronic/written communications. He added that due to large sums of money being offered in settlements, some victims were more motivated by financial gain than receiving justice.

Upon learning of Rivera’s comments, FOX News rejected them, adding, “Geraldo’s tweets don’t mirror the perspectives of FOX News or its administration. We were pained by his remarks and are tending to them with him.”

I couldn’t disagree more with Rivera over his policies for how sexual harassment should be handled, but his last point is valid. We can pretend that each person’s motivation is to right a wrong, but in this day and age where information spreads like a virus and quickly cripples those involved, not every accusation is delivered with honest intentions. Just think back to how your emotions changed as you learned more about the Duke lacrosse case.

For the victims who have been legitimately harmed and built up the confidence to come forward and attempt to hold others accountable for prior transgressions that sucks. But when you take into account how many popular personalities have lost jobs and how many millions of dollars have been spent by corporations to make stories go away, that can serve as an incentive for some people to create chaos.

That’s why it’s critical that we allow due process to take place when investigating these situations. As Robert Evans said, “There are three sides to every story – yours, mine and the truth, and no one is lying.” However, the rise of social media has made it harder, if not impossible, to manage disturbing allegations.

Let me ask you this, how are we able to get to the truth when people jump to conclusions based on the first thing they read on Deadspin, Bloomberg, the New York Times or the Boston Globe? What happened to hearing both sides of a case?

There are many positives about social media, but it can also serve as a cesspool where businesses and reputations get destroyed and public perceptions are formed and become difficult to erase. Many of us, become arm chair quarterbacks when negative stories become public news. We think we know all the answers based on the things we’ve read, but unless you’ve been in the middle of the situation, and are privy to all of the facts, you’re not as informed as you think you are.

This is why we have a justice system. It’s perfectly legal for anyone to sue and accuse a person or company of wrongdoing, but providing evidence, and convincing a jury is part of the process. I realize the term ‘due process’ may not be popular, especially to the social media masses who sit with their fangs out waiting to feast on dead skin, but everyone deserves to be heard. If someone is innocent, those facts will come out. If they’re guilty, they’ll pay a heavy price. In both cases, the public will know what transpired. That should be the goal not sensationalism or a rush to judgement.

Case in point, two weeks ago, a gunshot was fired inside of a store at the Crystal Run Galleria Mall in Middletown, NY near where I live. I received a text from my fiance about the story and began to scan the television and surf social media to try and learn more. KPIX 11 reported that three were dead, and the story was soon being advanced on social media by on site witnesses, stating that it was a mall shooting and many had been hurt.

A few hours later after police got involved and had a chance to investigate, they discovered that an individual who was in American Eagle with his pregnant wife and two children, fired his gun one time into the ground, causing a situation where the bullet fragments injured two people. Although the situation was scary, nobody died, there was no mass shooting, and no large amount of people were hurt. That’s not exactly what KPIX or the so-called eye witness’ reported.

So how could KPIX report that news? What about the sea of people who flocked to social media causing panic to families and additional problems for law enforcement who were trying to assess what went wrong? Shouldn’t they be held accountable?

A similar breakdown occurred earlier this month when ABC news correspondent Brian Ross reported that Michael Flynn would testify that President Trump directed him to make contact with Russian officials. The report turned out to be false, and ABC had to suspend Ross for four weeks.

When media outlets or the public rush to judgment minus all of the facts, mistakes are made, especially on social media. It’s why I believe executives at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram need to install stricter guidelines to make sure their platforms are used properly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having the freedom to post about my life, my business, and my personal and professional tastes, but if I were using a public platform to negatively damage a person or brand, and it was proven that I acted that way, there should be consequences. Right now, it’s a free for all and too many errors are occurring and creating larger problems.

To direct this back to the issue at hand, sexual harassment, it’s easy to preach from the sidelines about due process and tell media executives to stand by their people and investigate claims before making important decisions that permanently damage their reputations and end their careers. But when advertisers take money off the books, listeners and/or viewers stop consuming content, and social anarchy unfolds leading to the destruction of a brand’s image, how can I or anyone expect a CEO, Corporate Executive or Market Manager to stay calm and remain supportive as fires spread around them and their business gets harmed?

This is an uncomfortable subject to write about but it’s not one that we can sweep under the carpet. It’s important to remember that the only way to weed out the bad and support the good is by setting expectations, reinforcing them, managing each situation, and reserving judgment until all of the facts come out.

If even half of what Jami Cantor was subjected to is true, I feel terrible for her. Nobody deserves that type of treatment. These allegations will make some women think twice before pursuing employment at the NFL Network. If they’re proven to be true, it’ll likely lead to seven media people struggling to find future work, and it’ll reduce the NFL Network’s bank account and force the company to reexamine every aspect of its organizational structure, standards, and executive staff.

However, if we learn that there are other factors to this story, and the situation is different than what Cantor presented, then there’s going to need to be further explanations. Right now, seven people’s professional lives are on life support. For their sake they better have a damn good explanation and strong evidence to counter what’s been reported because at this point in time, it looks really bad for all involved.

If you’re in a position of power and given a license to shape a brand’s vision and hire a staff, it’s imperative that you conduct yourself as a leader in a proper way and outline your expectations and hold people accountable. I used to place a sheet on the studio glass door in a few of my buildings outlining the station’s on-air commandments. These were things I considered in bounds and off limits. Some hosts probably thought it was silly, a few may have even ignored it, but if the rules were broken, there were consequences. They didn’t have to look far to know what would and wouldn’t be tolerated.

It’s the same when navigating issues behind the scenes that are much more complex and personal. You set expectations, hold people accountable, and if issues arise, you investigate immediately. I had one situation arrive at my door over a ten year period, and as soon as I learned about it, I called the person in, questioned them, involved HR to investigate further, and made sure it was clear that there was no three strikes and you’re out policy for sexual harassment in the workplace. If anything turned up during the investigation that was deemed inappropriate, it could cost the individual their employment. The person in question understood the seriousness of the matter, and thankfully it wasn’t a larger issue.

These situations are a company’s worst nightmare, because no CEO, GM or PD wants to see their employees get hurt or their business get damaged. They provide a workplace for staff members to feel safe and productive in, not to be placed in harm’s way. There are a few slippery slopes to deal with such as social media noise, false accusations from people out for financial gain, and rehabbing a brand’s image after the fact, but if you treat co-workers with respect, conduct yourself in a professional manner, and act swiftly and fairly when situations occur, you’ll be in a much better position than the NFL Network is today.

As I stated at the beginning of the column, there are certain topics you never want to be mentioned in. Sexual harassment is one of them. When you cross the line and put yourself and your employer in an unenviable position, don’t be surprised if future opportunities aren’t available, regardless of how talented you might be. At that point you’re left asking yourself one question, “was it really worth it?”

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