At least a dozen sexual predators or harassers bounced from their jobs after being outed by #MeToo revelations have been rehired or handed new work. They include Pixar cofounder John Lasseter, whose appointment as head of a new animation arm at Skydance Media led actress Emma Thompson to bail on an upcoming Skydance movie. And resuming his stand-up comedy act after admitting to sexual misconduct, Emmy-winning comedian Louis C.K. is again trying to leave ’em laughing—and leave ’em forgetting the rest.
Intel fired CEO Brian Krzanich after a consensual but policy-violating relationship with an underling, but that didn’t deter an auto software company from putting him in charge. And Richard Meier continues designing at his eponymous architecture firm, which kept all its clients, despite allegations of harassment by its namesake from five women.
When should we forgive, and when not? BU Today asked Kabrina Chang, a Questrom School of Business clinical associate professor of markets, public policy, and law. She created the school’s Business, Society, and Ethics course and is teaching an ethics workshop in the management studies program this semester.
BU Today: What’s your reaction to prominent accused abusers seeking their careers back?
Chang: I’m skeptical of many of the returns. Returning to prominence, like Lasseter or Louis C.K., with no other progress, only perpetuates the abuse of power. They used their power to abuse women. Returning to that power enables more abuse, perhaps not by them, although that remains unknown, but by other men who see that they can harass women, take a few months off, then get right back to their career in a position of power.
You told Bloomberg Media we lack a “common formula” for adjudicating these comebacks. Can you recommend one—when should a man be forgiven and allowed to resume work, and when not?
[Anti-harassment group] Times Up suggested that there be some kind of public apology, deep introspection, and financial compensation to the victim. [Feminist author] Roxane Gay made a similar suggestion about financial compensation. When a woman is harassed or assaulted at work, the damage runs deep: not just her physical and mental health, but also fear of speaking up. The majority of the time, women are not believed or are criticized for not speaking up sooner, for what they were wearing, for what they did, etc. Women pay a steep price for speaking up for themselves.
Secondly, the perpetrator must admit to themselves what they did, own it. Then apologize, and do so legitimately and honestly.
Can you give an example of a prominent man who has made sufficient amends for his behavior, and an example of one who hasn’t?
In this interview with sitcom writer Megan Ganz, we can see the power of a forthright, honest, and thoughtful apology [from showrunner Dan Harmon, who’d mistreated her after she rejected his advances]. Does it return Ms. Ganz to her former career? No. And she is honest about why she could not have spoken earlier: she was too young in her career. She recognized that she would have been permanently derailed. But it does validate what she went through and indicate Harmon understands what he did, admits to his lack of respect for women, and his intention to better himself. She states he was the only person who could give her vindication. Are other men willing to do that? It doesn’t seem like there are many.
When Louis C.K. did his first comeback set in the Village, some of his supporters commented that “he did his time.” But he didn’t. A few months off from work, retreating to the comfort of your home, is not incarceration, it’s not adjudication, it’s not a jury of your peers judging you for your actions, or an admission. It’s time off.
Add to that the professional settings and networks: the women who were victimized by Louis C.K. stayed away from projects that his manager was working on, they missed opportunities because his manager told them to stop talking about what C.K. did to them. The impact on a woman’s career can be profound; some are permanently derailed. Look at Harvey Weinstein’s victims. Some never regained the stature or success they had before he abused or harassed them. Financial compensation will not put them in the position they would be in had the abuse/harassment never happened, but it is recognition and validation.
Have you discussed this topic in any of your classes, and does the reaction differ by gender?
I have. For many women, the issue is power: men used their power to assault, abuse, or harass women, and they should not be able to return to a position of power. A few had difficulty reconciling men returning to a career when their victim has been professionally damaged in unknown and probably permanent ways with their innate sense of forgiveness. They could not get there.
Do you think most of these men will be able to return to power, given Emma Thompson’s observation that, at least with serial predators, women won’t want to work for them?
Most women need their jobs. In many circumstances women don’t have a choice. The women at Skydance Media didn’t. So, yes, I do think many will return to positions of power and many women will have no choice but to stay in their job. Why should a woman have to leave a job she worked hard to succeed in, a job she loves, or even a job that simply pays her bills, because a man who has sexually harassed her has been hired? To think that hiring someone with that past won’t affect all women in that business is at best naïve, at worst purposefully ignorant. It puts the women in that company in an untenable and unfair position, prioritizing the man’s career over theirs. I don’t see how there can be any other result. Skydance Media says they will watch Lasseter, that they know what they have gotten into. That’s good for them and it sounds like they are trying to not get sued. But what do their actions say to the women who work for them?
Are you optimistic that we’ve turned a permanent corner in business thanks to #MeToo? Or is the past prologue, the future better predicted by the “hundreds of years of sexual harassment and repression of women” that you discussed with Bloomberg?
I’m optimistic about women being empowered to speak up, knowing that they are not alone, and knowing that more women can openly and publicly support them when they do come forward. This is a tremendous development. I am not as optimistic that management knows yet how to handle this. Women are not asking for special treatment, or kid gloves. I have read some commentary that it is hard now to know how to manage women, that male executives no longer feel comfortable with a woman in their office, mentoring women, or feel nervous and stressed when men and women have to travel together for work. Why? All women want is to be treated with equal respect; as Ms. Ganz says: the same respect shown men. That shouldn’t be hard to do.