DC Comics: Truth, justice and the HR way

The company behind Superman and Batman is the latest to be called into account for its handling of sexual harassment allegations.

It's almost difficult to believe that it's only been a month since the New York Times published its exposé on decades of sexual misconduct perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. In its wake, the entertainment industry has very quickly experienced something of a reckoning. Weinstein was only the first domino to fall, as this recent New York Daily News cover shows.

One of the less recognisable faces on that cover is a man named Eddie Berganza, a high-level editor at DC Comics – the publishing home of iconic superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Last weekend, BuzzFeed published a detailed investigation into Berganza’s rise through the editorial ranks, despite an extensive record of alleged sexual harassment that included forcibly kissing co-workers, and groping them.  

In fact, this record was so extensive that in 2010, a group of employees came together to file a joint complaint to DC’s HR team.  The outcome of that report? As BuzzFeed writes:

For a month, there was no official word on Berganza's professional fate. All conversations with HR were conducted over the phone, and none of the former DC employees with whom BuzzFeed News spoke recalled receiving any follow-up or documentation of their complaints.

Then, in late October 2010, a staff meeting was called, [one of the employees who filed the complaint] recalled. The new co-publisher announced a reorganisation that promoted Berganza to Executive Editor.

In the position of Executive Editor, Berganza was overseeing every book in the "DC Universe”.

Just two years later in 2012, at a comic industry convention, Berganza allegedly assaulted a woman (not a company employee) in a hotel lobby. There were multiple witnesses to the event, with the victim telling Buzzfeed that “some people pulled him off” of her right after he forcibly kissed her.

Following this, DC Comics – which is owned by Warner Bros, itself a division of Time Warner – demoted Berganza to Group Editor. In this role, he no longer supervised the entire superhero line, but only selected books. He was also restricted from travelling to conventions.

It is unknown if any other incidents have occurred since then. But Berganza’s history and reputation had been an open secret in the industry for a few years, and DC Comics had been urged to terminate his employment on multiple occasions; so much so that his name trended on Twitter last year.

When the company did choose to respond, it has been with this statement, or some variation of it:

“We take all claims of harassment very seriously and investigate them promptly. Employees found in violation of the policies are dealt with swiftly and decisively, and subject to disciplinary actions and consequences.”

But the ultimate punishment of termination eluded Berganza until this week following the publication of the Buzzfeed report. DC Comics first suspended, and then eventually fired him.

 

Prioritising trust and respect is in a company's best interests

Every day around the world, people are fired for all kinds of reasons that aren’t related to performance: coming in late to the office, being rude to the boss; the list goes on. Other employers might be more generous to these indiscretions, perhaps instead considering them to be the first of three-strike misdemeanours.

But employers must draw a line between small attitude issues and infractions that cause actual harm to other people – such as forcefully kissing or molesting colleagues.

Certainly, it’s always a difficult situation when an employee approaches HR to discuss another employee’s misconduct. In 2010, DC Comics assured the employees filing the formal complaint that their concerns would be taken seriously, properly investigated, and followed-up on.

But Berganza was not fired, demoted, or even placed on probation. He was instead promoted. It’s possible that he was reprimanded, and the fact kept quiet for his and others’ privacy (the victims who have spoken out indicate that they also heard nothing), but the optics of the situation don’t reflect well on the company. At least one of the employees involved in the complaint told BuzzFeed she had lost her trust in DC Comics being a fair employer, and resigned less than a year after the issue was raised:

"It changed how I felt about comics forever," she said. "Because we put our trust in them to do the right thing."

As many studies have shown, trust is absolutely crucial in the workplace. It is the foundation for loyalty, which isn't just about keeping employees – loyal employees will go above and beyond to contribute to your company's succeess. Conversely, a lack of trust dampens morale, and in turn stifles innovation and productivity.

In 2012, DC Comics did take visible action against Berganza, by demoting him, and restricting him from further attendance at other work events. But was this the right call?

There is a time and place for rehabilitation; such as when your newest employee tends to write too-abrupt emails, or takes too many days off.

In this situation, however, the employee in question is alleged to have semi-publicly harmed and assaulted another person – this on top of carrying a prior record of sexual harassment.

Beyond just toxic PR, it’s difficult to see what the company would have gained from keeping Berganza around after the incident. He is not an award-winning editor (though DC Comics has actually pushed out other high-performing editors for arguably lesser reasons), but in any case, good performance is no excuse for bad behaviour.

In contrast, the company has lost talent by keeping him around. As well as the departed employee quoted by BuzzFeed, freelancers have gone on the record to say that they have turned down work with DC Comics because it was still employing Berganza.

HR and senior management at the company failed to realise that Berganza’s continued employment was not only harming its internal workplace culture, but also its employer brand. These, in turn, were very likely affecting the quality of its products, and thus revenue and profits.

DC Comics produces stories about characters like Superman and Wonder Woman, who purport to fight on the side of truth and justice. Yet these allegations, and the company's response to them, show that the principles they endorse in their products were not sufficiently valued within their own office. 

But a company that chooses ensure that its employees are listened to, trusted, and respected – every single one of them, regardless of gender, or whether the CEO considers them to be close friends – will find itself better able to attract and retain talent, and remain competitive in the age of disruption. After all, when your employees don’t have to worry about mistreatment from their co-workers or bosses, they can focus more on producing good work. Your consumers and business partners, too, won’t have to worry about liabilities.

Whether it is a comic book producer, a film making company, or any other organisation, employees’ actions (and how HR and management react to them) reflect on the business, and shape its corporate culture. It shouldn’t have to take a superhero to keep that long-term impact of hiding or promoting problem staff in clear view.

 

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