POLITICS
02/27/2018 12:17 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2018

Powerful Men Who Lose Their Jobs Over Harassment Can Still Get Big Payouts

But you might not know about it.

WASHINGTON ― The Me Too movement has a pattern: Someone accuses a powerful man of sexual misconduct. He apologizes (or not). He leaves his job. Victims see justice; opponents say the movement has gone too far.

But there’s a possible step that isn’t widely discussed: Men who lose their jobs over harassment, particularly those in top-level positions, can still get big financial payouts. And if they do get a sizable sum, the public won’t necessarily find out.

Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul accused of pressuring workers to perform sex acts, made news earlier this month — not because he’s getting a severance payment, but because he’s not. (He does have company stock worth billions.) But it was reported that former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly received up to $25 million in severance, while late Fox founder Roger Ailes received $40 million. NBC apparently did not plan to give a payout to Matt Lauer, but the network was reportedly considering a severance package for his onetime booker Matt Zimmerman, who was also dismissed over inappropriate conduct. NBC did not respond to a request for comment.

HuffPost asked more than a half-dozen employers, including Nickelodeon, Amazon and Vice, that have seen high-profile employees depart in the past few months, about severance packages for accused harassers. Spokespeople for these employers also did not respond, or declined to speak. (Some ousted men do not appear to have received severance packages, including AlterNet’s Don Hazen, Long Wharf Theatre’s Gordon Edelstein and NPR’s Michael Oreskes.)

Public officials who leave amid stomach-churning scandals may also receive a different kind of benefits. Trent Franks, the millionaire Republican congressman who resigned in December after he was accused of offering a female employee $5 million to impregnate her, is currently on the Office of Personnel Management’s retirement rolls, an OPM spokesperson told HuffPost. So is former Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who allegedly made sexual advances, including requests for sex acts, to female staff. The OPM spokesperson declined to comment on detailed questions regarding pensions, citing privacy regulations.

Former U.S. appeals court judge Alex Kozinski retired after multiple women accused him of inappropriate behavior. His retirement left him eligible for an annual pension of $217,600. And on the local level, a former superintendent in Illinois accused of sexual harassment reportedly received a $127,000 separation agreement, prompting state lawmakers this month to push for disclosure of severances for government employees accused of sexual misconduct or discrimination.

In the private sphere, it is difficult to generalize about severance agreements because they’re often privately negotiated and confidential. And the fact that companies aren’t talking about personnel issues isn’t surprising. But high-profile terminations have launched a national conversation about issues of power, consent and accountability, and this part of the story is often missing.

Across the board, women already face a significant gender wage gap, may leave jobs because of discrimination, and are not nearly as likely to hold chief executive positions at Fortune 1000 companies. The same power structures that allow abusive men to climb the workplace ladder at the expense of female colleagues, can reward them after they’re caught.

Employers aren’t legally required to pay severance, though if an employee’s contract requires it, they must honor that, with some exceptions ― like if the termination is “for cause” ― which can include sexual harassment. Nonetheless, companies may decide to offer severance in exchange for release of liability, or to keep a powerful harasser from talking.  

It “is more likely to see a severance payment made to a senior executive who has been accused of sexual harassment than to a junior level employee who is accused of the same misconduct,” attorney Gloria Allred told HuffPost in an email.

Each company is going to handle the situation in the way they see fit, explained David Gottlieb, an attorney who advocates for employees subjected to harassment and discrimination.

“Generally speaking, the calculus is not going to be, ‘What do we think is right?’ Generally, companies are going to do what is in their best financial interest,” he said.

A woman who is being harassed may also be offered a severance payment, and choose to take that rather than risk a painful lawsuit she might lose. NBC reportedly paid out severance to a staffer who accused Chris Matthews of making inappropriate comments. Conyers also made a payment of about $27,000 to a former aide who accused him of harassment.

Historically, if a victim of sexual harassment does get severance, it won’t necessarily be “anything like the big executive who is the one doing the harassment,” said Tom Spiggle, an attorney who represents clients facing workplace issues, including discrimination.

As the Me Too movement marches on, it’s possible companies might be more inclined to make a stand—and win PR points—by making it clear that a harasser won’t get on a gravy train.

“The more traditional route has been like what we’ve seen at Fox,” where a company pays a head honcho “a big chunk of change to get the relief, to keep them quiet,” Spiggle said.

“I suspect we’ll see that change somewhat.”

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