When the boss is accused of sexual harassment companies must be prepared to take quick action

Any smart company already has a crisis communications plan in place. Corporate crisis plans, however, tend to rely on how to best manage external threats to the company and potential operations flaws that put the company in legal jeopardy. Few companies have serious plans on how to manage potentially destructive behavior by its executives and board members.  That must change.

Moving forward individuals and companies should assume that any allegation of sexual misconduct will become public. The media are dedicating resources to coverage of  allegations against high profile business leaders and the public is consuming the content and taking action against companies and its leaders guilty of wrongdoing.

Companies that are slow to take action against executive wrongdoing will suffer damage to their reputation, loss of revenue, and potentially complete implosion of operations. As such, now is the time for companies to establish better protocols for how to identify and take action if and when serious allegations are raised — whether they occurred in the workplace or not.

There has already been a lot written about steps to be taken from a Human Resources perspective including a recent article published by the Society for Human Resource Management titled “Workplace Sexual Harassment: Me Too or Not Us?”  The article, written by Christina M. Reger, Esq. and Robyn Forman Pollack, Esq. provide wise guidance to employers:

“Ignoring claims, whispers, or “open secrets” about bullying, sexual harassment and other predatory conduct will (not may) have severe ramifications for any company. In addition to legal and financial consequences, dismissing or even discounting employee complaints will have a domino effect inside an organization:

  1. “It sends a message of unacceptable behavior which permeates the organization’s culture.
  2. “It rewards the wrong individual and legitimizes the conduct, while simultaneously further stigmatizing the victim.
  3. “It can have a disastrous effect on the future sustainability of the company once exposed.”

So, what happens when a chief executive accused of sexual harassment becomes public?  How should companies communicate about it and to whom? The remainder of this article focuses on how companies should proceed from a communications perspective when faced with sexual harassment allegations that become public.


Let’s consider a scenario where a company learns of a sexual harassment suit against its chief executive from an online news report. The report claims the CEO is being sued for making unwanted sexual advances to an employee in exchange for a promotion. Social media is lighting up about the allegations, employees are talking, calls are coming in from the media, board members are asking questions and customers are judging.

Immediate steps

Once a threat is lodged against an executive or the company, the crisis protocol should be launched. It will be important to be in agreement for steps that need to be taken in the first hour and within the first 24 hours.  These decisions will largely be driven by several factors including:

  • What are the facts?
  • Is the allegation credible?
  • Who needs to be informed of the allegation?
  • Is the story being accurately reported?
  • What are the next steps?

Initial Action

Companies have options of which steps to take depending on the facts, which include dismissal or suspension of the executive, or full on defense of the executive. The given action will depend on what the company leaders learn following an initial inquiry and investigation into the matter (which obviously must include an interview of the accused).

For the purposes of this article let’s assume the executive claims no wrongdoing and the facts are circumstantial at best.  

Designated spokesperson

As part of the crisis protocol there should be a designated media spokesperson who will serve as the face of the company during a crisis. Most of the time this should be the VP Communications, which can ensure the company is responsive to the claims and positively represent the company.  For internal communications it makes sense to follow normal company policy as long as the message is consistent. For example, if HR normally communicates with employees then it should continue to do so in unison with the VP communications.

Company statement

Meanwhile, rumors are spreading like wildfire on social media; reporters and others are waiting for answers.  Something has to be done and quick to manage the message. A prepared company will have a “standby statement” on the ready, update it and distribute upon request and as needed on social media.  

It’s important to say that “no comment” is a terrible response.  It sends a message that the company is on the defense and the executive is most likely guilty.  Second, it surrenders any opportunity to shape the narrative. So, take the opportunity to make a well constructed and thoughtful statement.

The initial statement should do three things.  First, it should acknowledge the allegation(s) and that the company is actively engaged in getting the facts. Further, the company should use language that recognizes the seriousness of sexual harassment and repeat company policy that it has a zero tolerance for any such conduct regardless of title or position in the company. The third element of the initial statement should be to let your audiences know that updates will be provided as necessary.  In no instance at this stage of the process should a spokesperson speculate or discuss any of the allegations.

This may seem pretty bland to many (especially those audiences who want a head on a platter), but it allows the company to be responsive and engage in the dialogue.  It also buys the company some time to better understand the facts and what the company is truly facing.

Social media channels must be monitored regularly for false information and the gauge reaction to news and statements.  Obviously, the same message shared with traditional media should be shared on the social media platform.

As said above, consistent messaging should be sent to employees and other key stakeholders from normal channels of communications.  Employees should be reminded to be careful about what, if anything, they say about the matter, and certainly not to speculate.

Finally, any and all communications must be coordinated with the legal team and approved by the crisis team.

After the first 24 hours

Following the initial company statement there should not be any back and forth with media and others.  The company statement should stand on its own as long as nothing about the matter materially changes. Media and social media should be monitored for information and misinformation.

Reputation Management

Skipping ahead to the final action, the company will want to be prepared to communicate about moving forward.  Whether the executive is exonerated or found guilty, there will be reputation work to do.

If the executive is dismissed from the company, it will be important to reassure key audiences that the company takes the issue seriously and has taken steps to try to prevent it happening in the future.  The company should develop specific steps with regard to how it will do a better job to create a better workplace and it should be communicated broadly to key stakeholders.

If the executive is exonerated, it is still worth restating the importance of safe work environments and the corporate policy on sexual harassment and how issues can be reported  

The tolerance for sexual harassment has finally reached a tipping point.  Victims are being heard and the media is exposing wrongdoing on the part of powerful people.  These are ultimately positive steps for businesses and the people who work in them. As the allegations are taken seriously and reported by the media companies must be prepared to act quick and take positive action.


Is this “on the record?” A guide for executive interviews.

Business executives are often pressed into service to speak to reporters about high stakes business issues. This can be part of a sound strategy to set the record straight and communicate with primary audiences. After all, the chief executive is where the buck stops and often a company’s most credible voice. However, it’s a dangerous proposition if the executive doesn’t understand the ground rules of the media road.

The ground rules are often the most talked about part of our media training sessions. Before engaging any reporter the executive must understand the difference between “on the record” and “off the record” and everything in between. Here’s a rundown of the ground rules for speaking with reporters.

Is this on the record?

On the record – Everything said to a reporter is just that, “on the record.”  The reporter is free to report everything said with direct attribution to the executive spokesperson. This is the most desired situation for the reporter because he or she can substantiate their reporting with direct quotes. Additionally, most editors and publishers are demanding on record quotes because they make a far more credible news stories. In this day of so called “fake news,” the media are fighting to protect their authority as a trusted source of news resulting in greater transparency.

Off the record – None of what is said can be used in anyway in any news story by the reporter. Reporters hate “off the record” because what is said to them is pretty much useless. There are a couple points that all interviewees must be aware of before attempting an “off the record” discussion with a reporter. First, and this is vitally important, “off the record” cannot be claimed retroactively. This is a classic mistake. The spokesperson, while engaged in an interview, provides a great deal of information and then says, “…but that is off the record.”  Nope. “Off the record” must be established and agreed to by the reporter in advance of what is said.

The other aspect of “off the record” is that while the reporter cannot print/broadcast the information, there is nothing stopping the reporter from getting a different source to put the same information “on the record.”  So, proceed with caution. We regularly advise clients, “If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it.” In other words, it’s usually best to avoid “off the record.”

On background – Everything said to a reporter can be reported, but there is no direct attribution to the spokesperson. Spokespeople often choose to go “on background” because they might not be authorized to speak on the record or for other reasons wants to shield the source of the comments. Quotes “on background” can easily be recognized in stories that include quotes from unnamed sources. For example, you might see something like this in a news story: “The president was very upset about coverage in the mainstream media,’ said a White House source.” This quote is attributed to an unnamed source but the reporter tells you he or she works in the White House, which would suggest the person has direct knowledge of what the president said. There are different levels of attribution. Reporters, and their editors, want to describe the source as specifically as possible. Attribution such as “a White House source” is pretty vague, while “…according to ‘a member of the president’s cabinet,” is much more specific.  Attribution is also something that must be clarified and agreed to by the reporter before the interview starts.

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Deep background – Is the same as “on background” except for attribution cannot connect the source in anyway to the story.  Again, deep background must first be agreed to by the reporter. Whereas “on background” the reporter might attribute a quote to a “White House source.”  Under the rules of “deep background” the reporter can only say something like, “…according to a source familiar with the situation.” The farther away attribution gets from the name of the source the less compelling news stories received by the reading public, which makes editors loath to use sources on “deep background.”

Get the apology right the first time

Over the past year several executives accused of wrongdoing have stepped up to the mic and completely bungled their apology making their situation in most cases far worse.  In recent months the blunders have come fast and furious. We’ve heard a string of poorly executed apologies (in some cases, excuses) among powerful men accused of sexual harassment such as Harvey WeinsteinKevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose. Companies such as AppleEquifax, and most recently Starbucks have been criticized for not adequately addressing corporate shortcomings.


The poster child for botched apologies remains United Airlines. You’ll remember in 2017 when a passenger was violently dragged from a plane. The passenger, Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat on the overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville, Ky because he had patients to see. Video of the incident went viral and was covered in a continuous news loop over a two day period.

In his initial statement, United CEO Oscar Munoz was unsympathetic to the passenger and made no mention of the actions by his employees to have the passenger removed by security. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Using a robotic and sterilized word like “re-accommodate” in an emotionally charged situation backfired on Munoz and incited further backlash against he and the airline.

Soon after releasing the apology he sent an internal memo to employees saying that the United employee’s actions were “necessary” and that he “emphatically” stood behind them.  The letter was  immediately leaked to the media and public outrage raged on.

The next morning Munoz tried once again to get the apology right. The words were powerful, seemingly sincere, and appropriately addressed the “horrific event.”  Munoz took “full responsibility” and promised to make positive changes. It’s a very good apology but so much damage had been done and was made worse by the initial response. The damage was done and made worse by blunders in the C-suite.

Tuckahoe Strategies has counseled clients for many years that the most effective way to make an apology is to do these three simple things: say it first, say it all, and, say it yourself.  Here’s how to get the apology right the first time.

Say it first – In a crisis, silence is a killer.  The executive or company found to have committed wrongdoing must be first to speak and make the apology. This allows the executive to take control of the narrative, which provides the best chance for a positive outcome. Those who wait, allow the critics the first shots to damage the reputation of the executive and possibly the entire company. Speaking first can be the difference from playing offense or defense…and its always best to be on offense.

Say it all – In apology situations, there really is only one shot to get it right (if you are apologizing for a second time then something has gone terribly wrong). The apology should attempt to put the matter to rest and should not raise additional questions. It should be a turning point where the focus shifts from past infractions to positive changes coming in the near future. The apology should take full responsibility for the wrongdoing without any equivocation. Finally, in the spirit of saying it all, if there are remaining issues that have not yet been reported by the media but soon will, it’s usually a good strategy for chief executives to get ahead of it and reveal the information on their own terms.

Say it yourself – When the business is on the line, when there is one chance to get it right, it’s time for the apology to come right from the horse’s mouth. That often means the CEO. Some are reluctant to utilize the CEO in crisis situations but in the day and age of social media and instant news cycles people want to hear directly from the boss.  Doing so can demonstrate sincerity, transparency, and commitment to addressing the problem.

The American public is remarkably forgiving. They tend to go back to business as normal once they are reassured that issues have been explained and resolved. But that is less so when companies fail to be sincere and don’t address issues moving forward.

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