An HR Exec for Each CBS Show?

 

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 20, 2019
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​It sounds familiar: A big-name company lands in the news after its executives are accused of sexual harassment and discrimination. Company leaders swoop in, fire the accused, beef up the HR department, step up anti-harassment training and promise a new "culture of respect" at the organization. 

But it could be that CBS just set a whole new standard for responding to harassment and discrimination allegations against top brass: The broadcast network says it plans to assign "highly trained" HR executives to each of its shows. The network creates news shows, talk shows, sitcoms, movies and more.

CBS didn't respond to questions about how it will staff each production or how much the effort will cost.  

"These details are in development and still being finalized," said CBS spokeswoman Kelli Raftery.

'HR Production Partners' Assigned to All Shows

An internal memo to CBS staff in early May said that each CBS Studios production would now have a dedicated HR person assigned to it.

"[W]e will have a very expanded and visible Human Resources structure supporting all CBS Studios' productions," the memo states. "A big part of this will be the introduction of 'human resources production partners' assigned to all shows. These will be highly trained HR executives who will be on our sets on a regular basis to ensure safety and build trust with the cast, producers and staff. These production partners will provide a recognizable name and face for everyone on set, regardless of title, to confidentially discuss any potential workplace situation."

Having executives on each set regularly sounds expensive and time-consuming. So how might this look in practice?

"It remains to be seen if these point people will actually be high-level HR executives," said Lisa Franke, a legal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., based in Riverwoods, Ill. "While some might think highly paid executives are better off in the back office formulating strategic plans, they are often criticized for being too insulated from the front line. The #MeToo movement has sparked a culture shift, and visible senior-management support will be important to any attempt at transforming corporate culture—something that is not easy to change."

One thing to consider, workplace and harassment experts said, is that those at CBS accused of harassment or discrimination were high-level people—producers, for instance, and casting chiefs. They aren't necessarily on set every day, like actors, directors, camera crews, makeup artists and sound technicians are.

Other large companies have tried a similar approach in the past, but it isn't recommended, said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting company in Norwalk, Conn.

"This is a poor approach in my view, with the results not being what they are shooting for," he said. "If the objective is to ensure that behavior is in check, that culture is positive and nurturing and free of harassment, and that CBS is just a nice place to work, this is not the answer."  

Instead, Lewis recommended that CBS conduct focus groups with its employees, ask them how they view the company's culture and create corrective training around their feedback.

"Make sure the C-level sends a zero-tolerance message, and then backs up this initiative boldly so that employees feel safe going to HR," he said. "Having HR 'available' does not mean you need to have them on every set."

[SHRM resource page: Workplace Investigations]

Allegations at CBS

CBS boss Leslie Moonves was ousted from the company in 2018 after 30 current and former employees described to a New Yorker reporter how Moonves harassed, discriminated against or retaliated against women.

Following that, "NCIS: New Orleans" producer Brad Kern was fired after CBS's HR department investigated claims that Kern verbally harassed women and made racially disparaging remarks.

CBS casting chief Peter Golden left the network following allegations that he disliked using actors of color on CBS shows and that he verbally abused staffers.

It appears there were indications long before these departures that sexual harassment was a problem at CBS: In November 2017, Charlie Rose—co-anchor of CBS This Morning—was fired and his Charlie Rose show on PBS was cancelled after The Washington Post published in-house allegations from women who said Rose contrived to be naked in their presence, groped them and made lewd phone calls. In a statement, Rose apologized for "inappropriate behavior" but said he didn't believe that "all of these allegations are accurate." 

Will HR Be 'Policing' the Sets? 

CBS may be planning for its on-set HR executives to be the company's "eyes" and "ears"—perhaps watching for signs of sexual harassment or sexual, racial or other discrimination. Might it feel like these executives are "policing" each set?

"Implementation will be key," Franke said. "If HR comes off as a policing body that's just there to monitor workers and take punitive action against negative behaviors, the changes may not be well-received. Employees, especially in an entertainment industry, likely will resent such monitoring. A constant, authoritative presence on the set could stifle the creativity that seems so important in the television industry."

Might such a move reduce CBS's liability should other harassment complaints surface?

"There is no doubt that #MeToo has been extremely costly in terms of lawsuits, settlements and damaged corporate reputations," Franke said. "Taking proactive steps to get HR out of the office and onto the front line—or sets, in the case of CBS—to connect with the employees they support is one way to be preventative. The earlier HR becomes aware of potential issues, the sooner it can take action and avoid further damage."

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