When multiple women came forward a few months ago and accused the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of everything from exposing himself in front of them to rape, a curtain was pulled back.
Some of these accusations were made by successful, award-winning actresses that are familiar faces to most Americans such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Daryl Hannah, Annabella Sciorra, Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd and Heather Graham.
In all, more than 50 women have come forward accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct. As a result, Weinstein was fired from his company, expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and could potentially be facing criminal charges.
But that was only the beginning.
Not long after the allegations came out about Weinstein, the #MeToo movement began across the globe.
Millions of men and women from all around the world turned to social media and began openly talking about acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault they have experienced, particularly in the workplace.
Over the next several weeks, dozens of high-profile men in various industries have been accused of sexual misconduct. Some of the claims have forced them to either resign, be fired and/or seek treatment for their lewd actions.
Those accused of improper sexual behavior include everyone from award-winning actor Kevin Spacey to highly acclaimed comedian Louis C.K. to U.S. Senator Al Franken to longtime television host Charlie Rose to the founder of hip-hop music label Def Jam Recordings, Russell Simmons.
But just last week, one high-profile firing seemed to catch everyone off guard.
When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie welcomed viewers to the “Today” show on Wednesday, Nov. 29, she stunned audiences by officially announcing the firing of the show’s longtime co-anchor, Matt Lauer.
Shock is the only word for it.
Lauer, who reportedly had an annual salary of $25 million, was an extremely popular co-anchor and had worked on the “Today” show for more than two decades.
With her voice shaking, Guthrie read a statement from NBC News Chairman Andy Lack.
“Dear colleagues: On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer,” Guthrie read from Lack’s statement, adding that Lauer had been terminated after a “serious review” of the allegations. “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over 20 years he’s been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”
It was an unforgettable moment in morning television.
“All we can say is that we are heartbroken,” Guthrie told audiences. “I am heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner, and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell.”
“We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks,” Guthrie added. “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.”
According to various national media reports, including an extensive investigation by The New York Times, a former employee filed a formal complaint with NBC executives regarding Lauer’s inappropriate actions which allegedly began while covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Another woman has come forward and told members of the media that Lauer allegedly sexually assaulted her in his office back in 2001. There are also claims that Lauer gave a colleague a sex toy as a present which included an explicit note and invited a female co-worker to his office, dropped his pants and showed her his penis.
The day after NBC announced the firing of Lauer, the longtime co-anchor of “Today,” issued a statement of his own.
“There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions. To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry,” Lauer wrote on Nov. 30.
“As I am writing this, I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC. Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.”
“Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching, and I’m committed to beginning that effort,” Lauer added. “It is now my full-time job.”
The issue of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, has now taken center stage across this country. According to a recent poll by The Wall Street Journal, nearly 7 in 10 Americans, or about 67 percent, believe that sexual harassment happens in almost all or most workplaces.
But those numbers regarding sexual harassment are no surprise to James Ellington, an employment and labor lawyer with Hull Barrett in Augusta.
“I think what’s going on nationally is indicative of what’s been going on in the workplace for a number of years,” Ellington said. “It’s receiving a lot more attention because of the prominence, shall we say, of some of the individuals involved. But I’ve been doing this area of law for more than 25 years, and over that period of time I’ve seen a lot.”
Ellington, who was recently recognized by “The Best Lawyers in America” for 2017 for labor and employment law, said cases of sexual harassment in the workplace are found everywhere.
“I never want to say that I’ve seen it all because the moment I say that, I see something else,” Ellington said. “But what is making news in the mainstream media today is something that people have seen at various workplaces over the years.”
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission basically defines workplace sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which “unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Therefore, sexual harassment can range from inappropriate touching to persistent offensive sexual jokes to unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors.
“There are various degrees of sexual harassment as it is defined in the law,” Ellington said. “And some of those items may also qualify as a sexual assault on someone, particularly if you have crossed the line into actual physical touching or actual consummation of an act. Certainly, then, you have moved beyond the line when it is unwelcome advances and actions.”
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ellington explained. And the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man.
The victim and harasser also can be the same sex, he said.
“I have handled more than a fair number of sexual harassment cases over the years, and some are like what people have seen in the media recently,” Ellington said. “But I’ve also handled same-sex sexual harassment, so that’s not new. I had two of those cases about 15 to 20 years ago. So it happens.”
Whenever a sexual harassment claim is made in the workplace, Ellington said there are a few basic steps that need to be taken.
“You have three players involved in a situation where you have allegations of sexual harassment,” he said. “First, you’ve got the person who is the alleged victim. You have the person who is the alleged harasser, and you have the employer. And each of these individuals has a specific role of what they should or shouldn’t do given the circumstances.”
Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace need to feel comfortable informing employers of any issues they are facing, Ellington said.
“It is incumbent on the employer to provide a workplace that is free of sexual harassment,” he said. “So an individual who feels like he or she — because it is not limited to women — is subject to sexual harassment, there are certain things that that individual needs to do. First and foremost, they need to find out if the employer has a sexual harassment policy or what their employer says in an employee handbook regarding complaints and follow that policy.”
The alleged victim also should carefully document the sexual harassment allegations, he said.
“They need to make a report to the employer, and I would suggest it be in writing with all the details of what the alleged actions were that the person found offensive,” Ellington said. “Also, if the individual who feels like he or she has been harassed feels comfortable or safe doing it, they should tell the harasser that the conduct is not welcome and to please stop. Then, the individual should report the incident to his or her supervisor or to human resources within a company.”
If, for whatever reason, an employee feels like they need additional assistance, Ellington said he or she can also turn to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission for help.
“In appropriate circumstances, if somebody feels like they have been sexually harassed in the workplace, they can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but they have short timeframe to do that,” he said. “It is 180 days or, basically, six months to file.”
One of the most important roles is the leadership shown by the employer when such allegations arise, Ellington said.
“The employer has obligations in these circumstances, and if an employer wants to make sure they are protected from these circumstances, which these circumstances do arise in a workplace and they have for a long time, the employer needs to do some very basic things,” Ellington said. “First, they need to have an anti-harassment policy, and they need to make sure that it is disseminated to the employees. Secondly, if an employer receives an allegation of sexual harassment, they need to promptly and thoroughly do an investigation to determine the merits. Because, just because someone alleges harassment, it doesn’t mean that it actually took place. I mean, there are two sides to every story.”
But an employer needs to act promptly when investigating a complaint so that the situation doesn’t get worse, he said.
“And third, if action is warranted, then the employer needs to take appropriate action in response,” Ellington said.
As for those accused of sexual harassment, Ellington offers a simple guideline to live by in the workplace.
“I don’t know that this falls within a strict legal definition, but it’s sort of a simple explanation which is, if somebody’s momma wouldn’t approve of doing it, they ought not do it,” Ellington said.
“That’s not a legal definition about how one should behave, but it’s a common sense way to approach things.”
If an employee is being harassed by the owner, president or the principal of a company, the situation can become more difficult and that individual might want to consider seeking legal advice, Ellington said.
“Proving a sexual harassment case is not necessarily an easy task,” he said. “There are lots of pitfalls along the way. And the claim is not necessarily against the harasser. Sometimes it is the person who alleges to have been harassed who is bringing the claim against the employer for not providing the appropriate workplace environment.”
While a fair number of sexual harassment cases get settled out of court or resolved on motions before they make it to trial, it is important for the victim and the employer to know their rights and obligations under the law.
“I would suggest that, not only from the standpoint of the person who feels like he or she may have been harassed, but also the employers themselves,” he said. “Sometimes employers are out there trying to deal with the situation on their own and it becomes too much to handle, but it’s too late at that point.”
An investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct need to be thoroughly reviewed, which isn’t always easy, he said.
“You will need to identify the parameters of the allegation,” Ellington said. “When an allegation comes to an employer, you need to assess how long the situation has allegedly been going on and how many other individuals might be involved. It might be as simple as interviewing the person who is making the allegation and interviewing the alleged harasser. There might not be other witnesses, so the investigation might be just interviewing two people and making credibility assessments and making a determination.”
But in a larger company, there are oftentimes several people who have witnessed the alleged inappropriate actions.
“It may involve a wider group of individuals. It might be a half dozen people. Depending on the nature of the allegations, it might be 30 or 40 people,” Ellington said. “If you have got that number of individuals involved and if it goes back a lengthier period of time, that investigation can take a while to complete.”
That’s when an employer should definitely consider turning to an attorney familiar with labor laws, Ellington said.
“I’m a lawyer, but if there is a plumbing need in my house, I have learned not to try to take care of it myself,” he said. “I think it’s wise to seek counsel from someone who knows what they are doing.”
After all, allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace can affect the entire organization, Ellington said.
“Every situation is different. Just because there is smoke, doesn’t mean there is fire. But if there is a lot of smoke, there is usually some fire there,” Ellington said.
“But these have to be legitimate situations. There are situations where an employee, who might not have a basis for a harassment claim, is trying to drum up something to protect himself or herself from a workplace situation where they might be at risk of being fired for not doing their job. There are instances where some employees make some things up. I’ve seen that, too. It happens.”
Ellington said the best advice he can give employers is to make sure that they have policies in place that protect both their employees and the company.
There need to be boundaries established that provide all employees with a safe and healthy working environment, he said.
But employers also need to realize that these are people working alongside each other in an office setting, he said.
“You will have situations where romance blossoms in the workplace, and that can add another layer of complications,” Ellington said. “I think from an employer’s standpoint, the employer needs to undertake some type of proactive effort to ensure that you don’t have someone who is a supervisor over another employee also engaged in a dating relationship. You are asking for trouble at that point if you have not clearly defined what is or is not appropriate within a workplace environment.”
Employers should establish boundaries, so it doesn’t disrupt the business or negatively impact any employees.
“There are workplaces that allow employee dating, but they specifically disallow the situation in the context of supervisor/subordinate relationships because it can create a lot of issues in the workplace,” he said. “Problems in the workplace arise when one employee feels like another employee is being treated better. If someone is getting paid 5 cents more than someone else, just that can be the trigger for all sorts of issues within the workplace. And if you have a subordinate/supervisor relationship and somebody is a co-worker of the subordinate, they may very well feel they are getting the short end of the stick.”
On almost a daily basis, the public is learning about more allegations against high-profile figures all across the country. However, Ellington said it will be interesting to see if those scandals have an impact on sexual harassment claims made locally.
“I try not to predict too many things — whether it is football games, basketball games or trends in the law — but I would expect within the next year or two there will be an uptick in sexual harassment claims,” he said.
“Mainly because you go home every night and you hear about it. I listen to the radio going home and I’m hearing new things between here and the house practically every night. And everybody else is seeing it as well on the news, so it will probably have an impact.”
And, while many fans of the “Today” show were surprised that NBC executives acted so quickly in firing Lauer within days of receiving a formal complaint, Ellington said lawyers for the network must have found the allegations creditable.
“Somebody like NBC is going to have very good legal advice,” Ellington said. “I don’t know the circumstances of the situation regarding NBC that occurred last week other than what everyone else has heard and read through the media, but it moved very quickly. The complaint was made, I believe, on Monday evening and by Wednesday morning it was over.”
Clearly, it was important for NBC News to send a strong message that such behavior would not be tolerated at the network, he said.
“With some of the more high-profile individuals, what you do notice is once two or three people come forward, the floodgates tend to open,” Ellington said. “If you have got a situation where someone has behaved inappropriately, a lot of times it is not an isolated instance. So, once two or three people come forward, other people feel comfortable telling their story.”