Bill Cosby: What Do You Say and Do At Work?

November 20, 2014 5:44 pm

Well-intentioned executives and staff may hurt your office relationships by discussing this issue without thinking through the repercussions. This article is of particular value to senior leaders, employee-resource-group members and HR staff. Please forward to them

By Barbara Frankel

Bill CosbyBill Cosby will always be remembered as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, a fatherly role model who inspired and helped so many in the Black community to achieve professional status.

For the past two decades, he has pushed hard for education, supporting Black education in substantial ways, including a $20 million donation to Spelman College. He’s also been controversial with his blunt views on Blacks helping themselves achieve.

Now he’s in the news again with horrific accusations of sexual assault by more than two dozen women, including supermodels Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson. Although the 77-year-old Cosby has said he wouldn’t dignify the allegations by commenting on them, he did call Dickinson’s charges an “outrageous defamatory lie.” But he told NPR he will not comment further on any charges.

The question for people in corporate America is what to say about Bill Cosby at work—and the topic is on everyone’s mind these days. If you are Black, Cosby’s public fall from grace is painful. If you are a woman, especially one who has ever been harassed or abused, the nature of these charges may inflame you. If you are a white man, how do you handle the balance of not taking sexual-assault charges lightly but also not criticizing a legendary hero?

The question for companies is also how to handle whistleblowers and what types of policies to have in place when accusations occur.

What Experts Advise

We spoke with Dr. Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, who is Black, and two crisis-management professionals (both white) who asked to remain anonymous, from DiversityInc Top 50 companies. Here is their advice:

1. Be sensitive. Remember you are dealing with people’s heroes.

Dr. Ella Bell

Dr. Ella Bell

“I’m having a hard time because I grew up with Bill Cosby, starting with I Spy. In my mind, he is one of my sacred people,” Dr. Bell says.

She notes that she recently attended an event celebrating the donation by Cosby and his wife, Camille, of their substantial art connection to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. “Camille stood right by him. He is a hero to so many people,” Dr. Bell says.

2. Don’t prejudge circumstances until all the facts are known.

This case isn’t likely to go to court since the alleged incidents occurred more than 15 years ago and there isn’t any physical evidence. But it is likely that more information will surface over time and it is possible that Cosby will decide to address the charges.

A discussion this week on The View had co-hosts arguing Cosby’s guilt. Whoopi Goldberg put it best when she stated: “You have to really take a minute and follow the evidence—follow what happened. We’ll know when we know. That’s what I know.”

The statements from co-hosts Rosie O’Donnell and Nicole Wallace, both white, illustrate the delicate balance white people face when discussing this at work. For men, the issue is even more sensitive, our experts say.

“It’s very awkward,” O’Donnell said on The View. “Isn’t it awkward?”

“It’s more than awkward, it’s a tragedy,” co-host Nicole Wallace responded. “Either 13 women were raped by someone too powerful to face the criminal-justice system or an innocent man is being falsely accused. This is either a tragedy or a tragedy.”

3. Be neutral in your statements.

When discussing anyone who has been an icon to millions of people—especially to an underrepresented group—don’t jump to conclusions or vociferously state your opinion.

“I remember when Michael Jackson died and Black people in my office were crying. I overheard a white person saying, ‘But he was such a freak.’ That wasn’t necessary and you could see the pain in their eyes after that statement,” one of our experts said.

Gratuitous comments like that one hurt office morale and can undo years of working to build an inclusive environment.

4. Have processes and procedures in your office for sexual abuse—and communicate them well.

The Cosby story is about old charges that were never brought to light. Corporations need very transparent policies and an inclusive atmosphere where people don’t feel repercussions for bringing sensitive charges to light.

“Power and sexuality play out in all the wrong ways in Hollywood. It doesn’t have to play out that way in your office,” Dr. Bell says.

One of our experts, a very senior communications person, says there has to be zero tolerance for any kind of abuse, clearly communicated, and the belief that people can be whistleblowers without facing repercussions.

“A company has to stand by its values, which include respect for everyone. This is about when a situation comes up, employees knowing they can bring it up and have full support to deal with it right now,” he says, noting that the women accusing Cosby have waited years to come forth.

“What’s alleged here is really terrible, but if anybody has an issue and feels someone is abusing their position of power, right away you deal it,” he says. “The organization must respect a person brave enough to bring this to light. There are a lot of women and others who have been abused.”

Should Corporate Sponsors Back Off?

The controversy has caused some of Cosby’s corporate backers to rethink his employment. NBC, owned by Comcast (No. 44 in the DiversityInc Top 50), has cancelled a show it planned around him for the fall, another family sitcom. Netflix has also “postponed” plans to stream his comedy special on the day after Thanksgiving.

Cosby has been the spokesperson for many corporate products, from Jell-O Pudding (owned by Kraft Foods Group, No. 35) to Texas Instruments, E.F. Hutton & Co., Eastman Kodak and the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2011, he was named the first winner of the President’s Award for Contributions to Advertising by the Advertising Hall of Fame.

There is precedence for the actions of NBC and Netflix. In 2009, for example, Accenture ended its relationship with Tiger Woods among allegations that he was repeatedly unfaithful to his wife.

Our experts say they understand why corporations might drop a spokesperson who is suspect in the court of public opinion, but it’s always a difficult call.

“Everybody jumped on the bandwagon. This man’s legacy, whether he did it or did not do it, will always be tarnished,” Dr. Bell says.