National news headlines, particularly in 2017 when the #MeToo movement was popularizing, seemed to share more and more stories of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Tavis Smiley, made national news as he got into a legal battle with his employer following allegations made by former employees. PBS, his employer, put him on leave as investigations were underway. Smiley, in turn, sued PBS for wrongful termination, stating that there wasn’t credible evidence to prove he had done anything wrong and that all of his romantic relationships within the workplace were consensual. Many of the women stated that Smiley propositioned them inappropriately and threatened their job security when they rebuked his advances.
One woman did state that her relationship with Smiley was consensual during their time at PBS, but that he made frequent remarks about his position as her boss, leaving her to feel as though her professional success was in some way dependent upon the success of their relationship. PBS countersued and in August 2020, a judge ordered Smiley to pay $2.6 million to PBS after multiple women testified against him. The final verdict was that Smiley had breached the morality clause in his contract with the company, a clause put into place to ensure that representatives of the company would not tarnish its reputation.
While PBS appeared to handle this matter well, beginning with the presence of a morality clause and ending with the quick response to the severity of the allegations, there are always additional preventative measures that can be taken to work towards avoiding situations like the one faced with Mr. Smiley. We, at First Response, recognize many of the issues that arise when situations like the one PBS faced are not handled correctly. It appeared as though Mr. Smiley’s definition of sexual misconduct did not align with the organization’s, something that can be addressed through proper education and programs, such as our Defensible Harassment program. Clear communication within a company is a critical component to ensuring that the staff truly understands the parameters of the workplace. First Response recognizes the challenges that arise within a working environment, both in setting up programs for prevention and in handling misconduct if it arises.