Just as NBC and CBS News swiftly axed Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, respectively, Russell Simmons permanently resigned from his Def Jam, Phat Farm and other companies Thursday following sexual assault and misconduct allegations.
But that wasn’t enough for J.C. Penney, which dropped Simmons’ Argyleculture merchandise within hours of the breaking story. HBO will go forward with Simmons’ new stand-up comedy series “All Def Comedy” tonight, but his name has been removed from the title and he will not appear on it.
Last month the entrepreneur and music and TV producer was accused of sexual assault and harassment by model Keri Claussen Khalighi, which he denied in a letter published by the Hollywood Reporter. That prompted “Rachel Getting Married” screenwriter Jenny Lumet to write a response detailing her own 1991 encounter with Simmons. In a statement issued Thursday, Simmons said, “While her memory of that evening is very different from mine, it is now clear to me that her feelings of fear and intimidation are real. While I have never been violent, I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades, and I sincerely apologize.”
Announcing that he is removing himself from the businesses that he founded, Simmons said they will be run by “a new and diverse generation of extraordinary executives,” and his studio for yoga science will be converted into a nonprofit for learning and healing. “I will step aside and commit myself to continuing my personal growth, spiritual learning and above all to listening,” he said.
Simmons now has the dubious acclaim of being the first fashion executive to be called out internationally for alleged sexual assault. While there have been reports of sexual misconduct and harassment in the fashion industry for decades, especially among models, photographer Terry Richardson is the only one to have been publicly disparaged. Condé Nast, Hearst and WSJ have formally cut ties with the photographer. Activist and model Cameron Russell has posted on Instagram numerous firsthand accounts from models who claim to have been sexually mistreated at work, but the names of the accused and the models are blacked out. The New York Times is said to be vetting an exposé that will highlight other allegations that involve leading fashion photographers.
What the Simmons scandal will mean to the health of his ex-wife Kimora Lee Simmons’ namesake fashion business remains a question mark. Marchesa cofounder Georgina Chapman has been dealing with her own onslaught of unwanted publicity after her husband Harvey Weinstein was accused by myriad women for sexual misconduct and in some instances sexual assault. A spokeswoman for Lee Simmons declined comment Thursday.
As c-suite executives in an array of industries reexamine their sexual harassment policies, enforcement and guidelines, consumers also are taking note of the brands and individuals who are alleged to have been responsible for sexual misconduct. Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin noted that one in every four women experience sexual harassment and “a surprising number” experience it on a yearly basis. “So I think we’re going to see a lot more top executives taken down with complaints because it’s so prevalent. My guess is that this will continue until the news cycle gets tired of it,” Dobbin said.
“My concern would be midlevel managers, first line supervisors and coworkers are not going to be outed by the press in the same way. Russell Simmons is newsworthy, but the person at the bottom of his organizations who [may] harass isn’t. We know the existing complaint process hasn’t worked very well,” Dobbin said.
Antiharassment training programs and complaint procedures haven’t significantly reduced the frequency of harassment, he said. Surveys across different industries show that the prevalence of sexual harassment is pretty similar to what it was in 1980 “before companies started doing much,” Dobbin said. “However, there is good evidence that a well-done training program can educate people about what harassment is so they know how to define it. So being asked out by your boss five nights in a row constitutes harassment and something should be done about it…and they have better ideas what to do about it when they see it.”
Dobbin said people often don’t file internal complaints “because they see when others do they don’t get resolved in the complainer’s favor. Typically, HR does an investigation and says, ‘This is the first complaint, and it’s your word against his.’ And the person accused of harassment usually remains in their job.”
The real solution is to get more women into management jobs, Dobbin said. “We know that’s what changes the culture. That’s a longer term slog. I’m not sure if companies will respond to this problem by trying to do more to get women into management so that complicity declines. We see in the Harvey Weinstein case that a bunch of women were complicit as well. They knew it was going on and didn’t do anything to stop it. But generally when jobs are 50 percent women and 50 percent men, it just changes the culture and reduces the instances of harassment. My guess is that companies are not going to respond to this crisis by significantly trying to increase the number of women in higher level jobs.”
Anthony Riva, an analyst with GlobalData Retail, said, “It will be dependent from situation to situation. In most of the cases, it could have a light effect in the short run. The bigger deal is the consumer outcry that can happen because of it.”
Riva pointed to a recent incident in the sporting world that caused a Twitter backlash. When news spread that the University of Tennessee was close to hiring Greg Schiano as a football coach, many tweeted their disapproval. “People started complaining on Twitter because he was connected to Joe Paterno [having worked for the Penn State football coach], but there was no evidence in a court of law. Now he is not being hired for that team,” Riva said. “The thing to pay attention to is public outcry on Twitter. Regardless of what happens in the real court of law, what consumers are thinking and feeling. It seems as these things continue to happen, they’re headline news. We haven’t done any consumer surveys on that subject recently, but it’s probably something that would be worth looking into as this continues to pick up steam.”
As for whether there will be systematic overhauls of corporate sexual harassment training or guidelines, Riva said, “I would hope there would be, but I still think that the consumer outcry is going to matter most. As consumers say, ‘We don’t agree with what’s happening,’ they’ll use their purchasing power to not purchase the brand. Then companies will have to make changes based on that because consumers are mad at a brand or at a person, but obviously, each brand has to choose their strategy.”
Consumer activist Shannon Coulter, founder of #GrabYourWallet, which has a company boycott list, said mostly people want to track these incidents of alleged sexual mistreatment. “Everything is moving so quickly that people feel it’s difficult to keep track of. They like the idea of there being one place that is tracking everything,” she said.
“People have been pretty vocal to date. The last time I looked the #GrabYourWallet had surpassed a billion views on social media. Every time there is a new surge of these stories in the news,” she said, “the use of the hashtag sort of spikes up. It definitely has an ebb and a flow to it, but right now it’s definitely spiking.”
The fact that Simmons revealed his permanent resignation has spared his companies from being placed on the boycott list. They may be placed on the group’s Other Companies on Our Radar list. “Since we, the public, are unlikely to be privy to the details of whether or not Simmons will continue to realize a profit from his businesses, his companies may be good candidates for that list,” Coulter said.
Brand consultant and “Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends” author Martin Lindstrom said, “The invisible line needs to be defined. Today it might seem strikingly clear what sexual harassment is – but ironically – the very person inventing the term recently explained that the term only covered equality at the work place – not the discussion we’re having now. I’m saying this as if we were to go back 20 years in time – the unspoken rules were different. What today is unthinkable – were back then acceptable. Taking different cultures, nationalities or ages into account even more complexity would be added to the picture. As the rules hasn’t been universally defined and mutually agreed upon it is moving by the minute. In short – the rules has to be set, mutually agreed upon and most importantly training has to be introduced – attended by everyone – helping to establish a clear view of what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Lindstrom doesn’t expect widely publicized sexual harassment scandals to impact businesses’ sales.
“It most likely won’t have an impact on the business unless the link to the person in question is visible during the consumption of the product. I mean – have you stopped watching Weinstein’s movies? Probably not.”
As for what happens with Simmons’ brands now that he is gone, Dobbin said, “My guess is that people will forget all too quickly. What might protect companies is what most companies are doing, which is removing people immediately. Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are gone,” Dobbin said. “My guess is that quick action will help to vindicate companies to show as soon as they learned about this, they did something.”