A business that forces out an employee for questionable behavior often tries to keep the news from outsiders, including prospective future employers looking for references, for fear of generating a lawsuit from the ex-employee. The first employer’s silence can make it hard for even the most careful next employer seeking to protect itself and its workforce from future trouble – a little-known risk in this age of #MeToo.
That lesson was illustrated recently in a significant hire made by Newsweek Media Group, which owns Newsweek magazine and other publications. The company brought aboard an ex-senior Reuters editor as a top executive in May 2016, three months after he had left Reuters abruptly and without explanation.
Forced to Leave
Newsweek officials apparently failed to discover, before hiring the senior Reuters editor, that he had been forced to leave Reuters because of a formal complaint from a female reporter who was a subordinate that he had sexually harassed her for almost 10 months, according to a recent article in Buzzfeed.
He had allegedly warned her that “it would not be good” if she continued to rebuff him, and when she failed to give in, he ordered a downgrading of her job evaluation, according to Buzzfeed, which saw a copy of the complaint.
Buzzfeed said that shortly after its initial story ran, Newsweek officials said at a staff meeting that they were placing the ex-Reuters editor on leave pending an investigation. They said at the meeting that they had conducted “three weeks of due diligence” before hiring him and that, while they heard rumors about him, they could not confirm them.
“Newsweek Media Group conducts rigorous pre-employment checks on its employees,” Newsweek Media Group told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “These checks were completed when we hired” the ex-Reuters editor.
A “thorough investigation”
Newsweek put the former Reuters editor on leave shortly after the Buzzfeed article appeared. He was allowed to return to work a few weeks later, news reports said. A Newsweek HR official told the company in an internal memo, which was obtained by the publication Splinter, that it had had a law firm perform a “thorough investigation” and “did not find evidence to substantiate” the sexual-harassment allegations.
Is there something more that background-screening companies can do to protect clients from hiring candidates with troubled pasts? One recommendation: In cases in which someone has left his or her job unexpectedly or mysteriously – or if red flags emerge in an initial review – prospective employers should seriously consider asking their background checkers to interview employees from the previous workplace.