When leaders are called to account for creating a hostile work environment, is it possible for them to learn from their mistakes and change their behavior? If so, how long does that take? Should there be a waiting period of six months, one year, or more before they are given new leadership roles? Finally, how can those implicated show that they understand where they went wrong?
NPQ readers may recall that Emmett Carson was forced from his role as CEO of the massive Silicon Valley Community Foundation amid accusations by the staff that Carson and his second-in-command Mari Ellen Loijens had fostered a negative work environment, and had not taken any steps to stop a senior staff person from bullying and harassing the staff. That was in June 2018, two months after he had been put on paid leave while an investigation was launched into what had been described as a toxic work environment by one employee, who wrote an article about it for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. It had become clear that at the very least Carson had failed to mitigate bad behavior, fostering an extremely hierarchical structure while hiding problems from the board. But Carson, one of a too-limited number of black foundation presidents, has a decades-long history in the field and many philanthropic supporters.
Not quite 10 months later, Carson has taken on a new leadership role as the chief operating officer of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a project that is under construction in Los Angeles. Almost immediately, the news was greeted with amazement by the SVCF employees who had helped remove him from his previous position. One suggested that a project of the scope and visibility of the Lucas Museum could have attracted any number of highly qualified candidates to the position, and wondered why was it offered to “the man who showed no remorse and offered no apologies to the staff who were mistreated by the head of fundraising for years under his watch?”
Representatives of the Lucas Museum (yes, it is THE George Lucas who is underwriting the project) defended the hire, saying that while they acknowledge the allegations that had been made against him by staff, they believe Carson is the right person for the job. Interestingly, Jan Masaoka, head of the California Association of Nonprofits, is also quoted as saying Carson should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that we should not judge what people may be capable of “learning and changing” about themselves.
In an article from Silicon Valley Business Journal a few days ago, it was revealed that a letter has been sent to George Lucas by 21 people associated with SVCF, calling for Carson to be let go. They took issue with the museum leadership’s categorization of their “allegations,” and referenced the final report on the SVCF investigation which, they claim, verifies the allegations.
Most of the people signing the letter are SVCF staff, although three are from one of the larger funds within the foundation, the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation. A report in the San Jose Spotlight quotes Steve Kirsch saying that found it “baffling” that Carson has not even acknowledged what has happened or what he had done wrong. He also suggests that the Lucas Museum may have made an honest mistake with this hiring but hopes that the letter he co-signed will have an impact.
For some, Carson deserves another chance. But for those who experienced bullying and sexual harassment at SVCF, the statute of limitations has not passed, and they fear Carson, who has never really apologized or acknowledged his mistakes, may well foster the same kind of atmosphere in his new museum home.—Rob Meiksins