What the Fox News Bill O’Reilly fiasco teaches businesses

Columnist Rob Enderle writes that there is a lesson to be learned from the Bill O’Reilly Fox News fiasco: The cost of not identifying and eliminating abuse of power is far too high to ignore.

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In the case of sexual harassment this would typically mean that the employee would never be alone with a member of the opposite sex they weren’t related to. Penalties would range from severe fines to unpaid leave and termination.   Once this kind of a charge sticks the employee is guilty until proven innocent and the firm has to work to eliminate even the opportunity for the appearance of harassment. Against the revenue that O’Reilly generated a full-time handler would have been a trivial cost yet clearly that kind protection wasn’t in place.  

Other kinds of common power abuse

Sexual harassment is only one type of power abuse that can eventually lead to avoidable termination. Others include general employee abuse, misuse of company assets, embezzlement, breach of security, substance abuse either on the job or affecting performance, padding expense reports, and extreme delegation (retiring in place). Here is a more comprehensive list.

With oversite, classes, and targeted mitigation efforts you can generally prevent the damage that can be caused by a senior employee who abuses power and the combination of classes and monitoring early in an employee’s career can either help prevent or eliminate this behavior.

Power and abuse too often go hand in hand

People who abuse power often rationalize that abuse, but while some have completed a career with much penalty the combination of social media and web resources to address these problems by employees has clearly changed that dynamic. If you are abusing your power or being abused you need to seek help because the career and emotional damage can be extreme.

If you are in authority realize that a significant percentage of your most valued employees either are or will abuse their power and either damage other employees, the company, or force you to terminate them. All outcomes are unacceptable and if you don’t have a plan in place to identify and eliminate this abuse it’ll likely bite you in the butt like it just did Fox.

So, like all problems, with abuse of power, you have two choices. Identify and eliminate it, or pray that when it is discovered you survive it. I’ll say this, life is short and I’ve worked in abusive environments and also in ones that didn’t tolerate abuse. Any time in the former is too long and in the latter not long enough. But you don’t want to be Bill O’Reilly, Bill O’Reilly’s manager, or one of his employees, all of them are likely screwed now -- and this was a fixable problem. However, instead of fixing it, they dealt with the symptoms, and that rarely ends well.

In the end, there is a lesson here, and that is that the business cost of a person in power abusing it is often far greater than can be easily measured.   Assuring this doesn’t happen is generally the far better, and cheaper, option. Just covering it up, in today’s connected world, is far too risky to even consider anymore.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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