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A double standard for leaders: A cautionary tale for HR

Two recent news stories, one national and the other from here in Philadelphia, about two executives who engaged in sexual harassment at the workplace has made me wonder whether a double standard exists for leaders?

Attorneys hired by Fox to conduct an internal investigation were told by more than two dozen women that former CEO and Chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, had harassed them. Former Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson had recordings of numerous incidents of sexual harassment dating back more than one year. The investigators interviewed Fox News anchorwoman Megyn Kelly, and as a result, she joined the accusers. The evidence against Ailes was strong, convincing, and apparently irrefutable.

Closer to home, a news article last month revealed that Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) Executive Director, Vincent Fenerty, who had been at the PPA since 1983 and Executive Director since 2005, had engaged in sexual harassment. During an internal legal investigation conducted in 2015, Fenerty admitted to behavior over a two year period that constituted sexual harassment.

Most sexual harassment policies make it clear that the organization desires a workplace free from discrimination and harassment and that it strongly disapproves of harassment. The policy typically outlines a formal procedure for the handling of complaints and commits to taking prompt and appropriate action in the event that there is a finding of sexual harassment.

What types of appropriate action might be taken? Typically, the corrective action will be designed to end and to remedy the harassment and to prevent it from recurring. Consequences to the harasser range from issuing a reprimand to dismissal.

So, how were these two strong cases of sexual harassment handled?

Roger Ailes was dismissed, however he was paid $40 million in his severance package. (Gretchen Carlson’s case was settled by Fox for half that amount.) Vincent Fenerty retained his $223,000 top role at PPA, but he had to pay $30,000 to cover the costs of the internal investigation. He was issued a reprimand, and his authority was constrained so that he was no longer permitted to hire, fire, promote, transfer, or give raises to upper-level employees. He was required to pay for and attend counseling on appropriate workplace behavior, and he could no longer go on overnight work trips with other employees without obtaining board permission.

But then, a second sexual harassment case against Fenerty surfaced. This one was settled for $150,000 at taxpayer expense in 2007. Under pressure from the PPA Board, Fenerty resigned.

The position an individual holds in an organization should be a factor in the determination of consequences when sexual harassment is found. However, these two cases perversely apply that double standard. Those in positions of power and authority must be held to higher standards and also made to account in a more severe manner when found guilty.

Here are two cases which HR professionals should study to determine what contributing role HR professionals played in these cases, and what instructive lessons we might derive to help our organizations avoid similar fates. What can and should HR do to ensure that organizations create and maintain a healthy, safe, and high performing work environment?

For more details on the history of Roger Ailes and the culture at Fox, read “The Revenge of Roger’s Angels” written by Gabriel Sherman published in the September 2, 2016 edition of New York Magazine. It is impossible to miss all of the opportunities that an effective HR function could have played in preventing and/or responding to the toxic environment created by Roger Ailes.

How about at the Philadelphia Parking Authority? What lessons can be learned there? Interestingly, in explaining why the PPA Board did not take tougher action in 2015, the chairman, in reference to the earlier 2007 case said, “That complaint was not filed with our human resources department.”

That comment may be instructive enough.


Gerry Brandon, PhD is the Director of the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University & an Associate Professor. Learn more about him here!

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