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Falling ‘Superstar Harassers’ Wake Companies Up: EEOC’s Feldblum (1)

Nov. 1, 2018, 1:30 PMUpdated: Nov. 1, 2018, 5:04 PM

Sometimes it takes the toppling of a superstar—and the related fallout from shareholders and others—to get major companies to seriously commit to eliminating sexual harassment, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says. Just two recent casualties at tech giant Alphabet Inc. underscore the danger.

“No big employer is going to take positive steps unless there is reaction, from their own employees, shareholders, whoever it is,” the EEOC’s Chai Feldblum said in an interview Oct. 31. “That’s part of bringing attention.”

When companies do act, they often try to handle sexual misconduct allegations quietly. But that can backfire.

Alphabet executive and tech innovator Richard DeVaul stepped down Oct. 30 in the wake of a New York Times report a few days before that detailed credible accusations of sexual harassment against him.

That was only part of a lengthy piece that focused mostly on how Alphabet subsidiary Google had sent executive Andy Rubin off with a $90 million exit package, never mentioning that he was actually being let go for credible allegations of sexual misconduct, also extensively detailed in the report. Rubin is credited with creating Android software.

Google employees around the world walked out on Nov. 1 in protest of Rubin’s hefty parachute.

Star Status and Delusion

In a 2016 EEOC report on sexual harassment at work, Feldblum and fellow commissioner Victoria Lipnic warned that “superstar status can be a breeding ground for harassment.”

“Superstars are privileged with higher income, better accommodations, and different expectations,” the report states. “That privilege can lead to a self-view that they are above the rules, which can foster mistreatment.”

Google’s in the hot seat, but all employers should be paying attention, Feldblum told Bloomberg Law. “Yes, Google is in the headlines now; there are any number of big companies that could be in the headlines tomorrow,” she said. “Every company—big, medium, small—should be thinking now proactively, how should I have this not happen?”

Ditch the Cost-Benefit Analysis

It’s tempting for employers to look the other way when a high producer is accused of harassment, Feldblum said.

“They make the cost-benefit analysis that it’s more costly to discipline or terminate the harasser than the benefit of actually getting rid of the person,” she said.

Inaction and cover-up are ethically wrong and harmful to employee productivity, Feldblum said. But how to proceed?

A plan helps, employment lawyer William Milani with Epstein Becker Green told Bloomberg Law.

“Many of the firms we work with are, with the blessing of senior management, putting in place protocols so that if an issue does arise at that level there’s a roadmap in terms of how we’re going to handle this,” Milani said.

A demonstrated serious commitment to change triggers a ripple effect in a company, he said, adding that companywide training is part of that commitment to action.

Feldblum noted that the change begins with employees, so companies should make sure they are heard. Even superstars shouldn’t be permitted to foster an environment of fear and silence.

Employees “will lead their leaders to the right place,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cathleen O'Connor Schoultz at cschoultz@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com