Advice for Managers: What I Learned from the Matt Lauer Revelations

I am pleased to share my latest post to Philadelphia Business Journal.

When allegations initially were made against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, I admit I was not surprised. While I was not aware of their reputations, I always found both of them somewhat “creepy.”

When multiple individuals came forward corroborating each other, it became clear that we are dealing with serial harassers. Again, I was not surprised.

This is important because the additional evidence confirmed my emotional reactions to them. I know enough not to make investigatory findings based on an emotional pre-disposition, but everyone who conducts investigations needs to be aware of their own emotional predispositions so that investigations do not end up with “confirmation bias.”

Then, came the termination of Matt Lauer. I was, to put it mildly, shocked.

For many years, I started my mornings with Katie and Matt. I respected and like both of them. I had “welcomed” them into my home.

While Matt Lauer denies some allegations, he has admitted wrongdoing. In his first public statement since being fired from NBC’s “Today” show, Lauer said “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 thought Matt was smart and likeable. More importantly, my sense was that he was a decent man.

So, when the allegations against Matt Lauer were released, and more women have since come forward, I thought: “this does not sound like Matt Lauer.” Of course, I don’t know him but his conduct as it has been revealed did not comport with my perception of him.

In workplaces, managers routinely receive complaints about other employees who allegedly have engaged in harassment. How they respond is incredibly important.

I was aware of my emotional reaction to Weinstein, on the one hand, versus Lauer, on the other hand. But what if my emotional reactions were reflected in my verbal responses as a manager.

What if I had said, about Weinstein, “I’m not surprised.” That would have suggested knowledge, even if not the case.

What if I had said, about Lauer, “That does not sound like Matt!” I would have been diminishing the allegations based on how I perceived the alleged wrongdoer.

When we train managers, it is absolutely critical that we provide them with guidance on how to respond “in the moment” to allegations of harassment. If we don’t, they may focus on how they feel and not the woman (or man) before them.

In my view, the appropriate response to a complaint starts with: “Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. We take them very seriously.”

Yes, it is human to have an emotional reaction based on your view of the individual who allegedly has done wrong. But, it is inappropriate to share that reaction when someone has the courage to step forward, regardless of whether you end up being right or wrong.

The truth is that none of us knows for certain who would–or would not–engage in sexually harassing behavior. That’s why investigations are so important, without assumptions, one way or the other.

I believe that Lauer is sorry. I hope that it is not simply because he got caught.

I thought I knew Matt Lauer. I was wrong.

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.