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An Empire Crumbles: Why the Jussie Smollett Situation Matters for Business

Last Friday, March 8, actor Jussie Smollett was indicted on 16 felony charges for filing a false police report about his claim he was brutally assaulted in Chicago in February.

Smollett is the actor from the hit show Empire who came forward with a chilling story of assault that included both homophobia and racism. What happened to him sounded terrible, and it shocked the nation.

The problem was that from the beginning nothing added up. The “assailants,” who were identified from video surveillance, were Black men who had a prior connection to Smollett. They weren’t the right-wing Trump supporters Smollett claimed had accosted him. They told police Smollett had paid them to stage the entire ruse. The whole thing appears to have been a pitiful attempt to garner attention and get Smollett a pay raise for his role on Empire.

Serving Smollett with 16 felony counts seems a bit extreme, but the city of Chicago wanted to send a message. Consider what Smollett’s actions unleashed:

1. Civil rights leaders, celebrities, politicians, and others came forward to denounce this kind of attack as unacceptable. They were then each forced to backtrack on their statements once it became clear things were not as it had first seemed.

2. The Chicago Police Department took this situation very seriously. They invested a great deal of time and manpower to investigate an incident that never actually happened. Those resources could have been deployed elsewhere to solve other, real crimes.

3. Incidents similar to this do happen to other people. This type of caper hurts all those people with real experiences of homophobic, sexual, or racial harassment. Now anyone who reports an incident like this will be scrutinized more closely. Is this claim for real? Has it been exaggerated? Or, is it totally made up, like Smollett’s story was?

What lessons are there for those of us in business?

1. Don’t jump to conclusions. In the #MeToo era, it’s natural to want to act quickly to stop harassment and bigotry when it occurs—but sometimes things are not as they first seem. Take time to learn what’s really going on. Don’t make accusations or come to conclusions before doing a thorough investigation.

2. Don’t automatically believe charges of this type are not real. This case stands out because it is so unusual to see an incident of this type staged. While there is always the possibility of a he said-she said issue, most of the time when there’s an allegation, there’s at least some behavior or action that may be questionable. See what’s going on before dismissing incidents as fake news.

3. Put a process in place now. Don’t wait until you’re in the crosshairs of an emotional incident to figure out how you will deal with serious allegations like this. Just like you have a process for evacuating a building when the fire alarm rings, you should have a process for handling allegations of harassment and bigotry.

4. Be clear that there’s no room for hate. Let employees, suppliers, and customers know that you will not tolerate sexual or racial harassment, misogyny, homophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism or anything of the like. When you are clear that there’s no room for hate in your organization, it’s less likely these situations will occur on your watch.

Linda J. Popky, founder of Leverage2Market Associates, is an award-winning Silicon Valley-based strategic marketing expert who is the author of the book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters and the Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Consulting (SAC). Follow her on Twitter at @popky #mktgabove.

Linda Popky

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