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Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Mario Batali are all eyeing a return. #MeToo is at risk.

Employers need to be held accountable, not just a few bad actors.

Bill O’Reilly in 2016
Bill O’Reilly in 2016.
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Just months after the downfall of producer Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the current #MeToo movement, once-powerful men are already thinking about their comebacks.

Bill O’Reilly is in talks with Newsmax TV to host a new show in his old 8 PM time slot, according to Page Six.

Last month, Page Six also reported that Matt Lauer was “testing the waters” for a comeback “by coming out of hiding from his Hamptons home.” Mario Batali is reportedly thinking of starting a new company. Garrison Keillor is touring again, and wants to bring back his radio shows.

Some of the comeback chatter has come from media outlets rather than directly from the men. Charlie Rose was the subject of a recent profile in the Hollywood Reporter detailing his post-firing media diet and exercise regimen (10 newspapers a day; tennis) and examining what “earning back his good name” might look like. The same publication also recently asked comedians and club owners how Louis C.K. “could return to the stage ... and the spotlight.” (Comebacks by once-powerful men appear to be a bit of a trend lately, whether or not they were accused as part of #MeToo — former national security adviser Michael Flynn has begun making speaking appearances and recently told Politico he is “doing great.”)

Whatever the source, talk of comebacks at this early date risks replicating one of the flaws critics saw in earlier phases of the #MeToo conversation: an excessive focus on individual men to the exclusion of the systemic factors that allowed them to harass colleagues with impunity. As women came forward to report harassment and assault in recent months, “the main reaction was punishing bad actors, as though that behavior was not institutionally supported,” said Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder of Healing to Action, a nonprofit that helps workers advocate against gender-based violence.

It’s worthwhile to consider whether and how powerful people ousted from their jobs over sexual misconduct should be allowed to redeem themselves. But first, the companies and industries where these people operated need to think about their redemption, making sure they identify and change the practices that protected and enabled abusers for too long.

In the wake of high-profile firings, some organizations are instituting new training and policies. But experts worry that too few companies are asking the hard questions necessary for real change. And if they don’t, the abuses that led to #MeToo in the first place are likely to happen again.

For some powerful men, the comeback talk began after just a few months

Pundits have been talking about “rehabilitating” powerful men accused of sexual misconduct since at least early December — and Weinstein was talking about a “second chance” in mid-October, just days after the New York Times first reported on his legal settlements with multiple women accusing him of harassment. So it’s perhaps no surprise that some men are reportedly mulling comebacks not long after leaving their jobs.

Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News in April 2017 after multiple sexual harassment allegations against him came to light. Now he’s in talks to host a new show on conservative cable and streaming network Newsmax TV, according to Page Six.

Matt Lauer was fired from his job as the co-host of NBC’s Today show in late November, after a female subordinate reported inappropriate sexual behavior by him. Soon, more women came forward, including one who said he sexually assaulted her in his office, causing her to pass out.

On April 16, Richard Johnson of Page Six reported that Lauer was “said to be testing the waters for a public comeback” and had been spotted at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan with Mitch Modell of Modell’s Sporting Goods. “With his marriage to Annette Roque now over, he’s ready to restart his life, pals say,” Johnson wrote.

In December of last year, Batali stepped away from his restaurants after four women told Eater that he had touched them inappropriately in incidents spanning two decades. The New York Times also reported that Batali had been seen in 2008 groping a woman who appeared to be unconscious at a party in a space at the Spotted Pig restaurant that some employees darkly called “the rape room.”

In early April, less than four months later, Kim Severson of the New York Times reported that Batali was taking meetings “to figure out how his life and career might recover from a disastrous turn.” Batali had “sketched several scenarios that put him in the driver’s seat but cede some control,” Severson reported, including creating a new company that would be led by a woman CEO, or starting a program for chefs to help displaced Rwandans. “On the other hand,” Severson wrote, “he might just move to the Amalfi Coast.”

Garrison Keillor, meanwhile, was dropped from Minnesota Public Radio in late November due, the network said, to allegations of inappropriate behavior with an employee. Keillor claimed all he had done was pat a woman on the back, but in January, an MPR investigation uncovered allegations by multiple women across many years. Keillor has been defiant in the face of allegations against him, saying that one woman who complained about his behavior “enjoyed flirtation, as many people do.”

In April, he posted on his Facebook page that he was ready to resurrect his poetry radio show, The Writer’s Almanac. “I get the idea that public radio stations will never carry it again and so we’ll need to find a way to do it through social media,” he wrote. “There are smart people who can manage this and make it easy.”

He also said he wanted to take his famous show A Prairie Home Companion on tour again. And in March, he resumed giving solo performances incorporating songs and storytelling, commenting onstage in Prescott, Arizona, about “the beauty of being disgraced.”

Charlie Rose lost his gigs at CBS This Morning, 60 Minutes, and his eponymous PBS show in November, after eight women reported that he made unwanted sexual advances toward them. One woman said that he invited her to his house, saying he was considering her for a job, then appeared naked except for a bathrobe and twice tried to put his hand down her pants.

Last week, James Oliver Cury of the Hollywood Reporter wrote that Rose had holed up for the winter at his home in Bellport, Long Island (“described as ‘the un-Hamptons’”), but made time for meals with influential people like lawyer David Boies, who has represented Harvey Weinstein. While one friend said Rose was “focusing on trying to understand, [both] events and other people’s perception of them,” another told Cury, “I don’t think he thinks he’s done anything wrong” and “he thinks he will be back on television.”

Workplaces are responding — but the work is far from done

While powerful men mull their next steps, the workplaces that dismissed them are making changes to varying degrees. CBS News, where Rose hosted CBS This Morning and was a correspondent on 60 Minutes, has instituted mandatory in-person sexual harassment training since he was let go, according to a spokesperson for the network. The two-hour trainings supplement the company’s online training, the only format required in the past.

The network has also established a working group to evaluate the workplace environment at CBS more generally and make recommendations to management, according to an internal memo sent last week. The working group is holding meetings for employees to discuss their concerns, and will offer an email address to share concerns anonymously.

In April, Page Six reported that an upcoming exposé about Rose in the Washington Post had CBS executives “panicking that they’ll be accused of turning a blind eye to his sexual misconduct.” One source told Page Six that executives had been warning employees that their nondisclosure agreements would be enforced if they talked to the Post. The spokesperson for CBS declined to comment on the Page Six report.

Meanwhile, Mette McLoughlin, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Minnesota Public Radio, told Vox that “our anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies have been in place for many years and upon a recent review, we find they are strong policies that have served the organization and our employees well.” The review took place more than a year ago, before Keillor’s termination, according to a spokesperson.

In the past six months, the station has made an effort to ensure employees are aware of the anti-harassment policies and “where they should bring any concerns,” McLoughlin said. After the Weinstein news broke, the station hosted a series of brown-bag sessions on the policies, which gave rise to “a subgroup that is working to identify how we want to define a respectful, harassment-free environment and what that requires of all of us.”

At Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, which manages the restaurants opened by Batali and his business partner Joe Bastianich, changes have been underway since December, when a letter to staff promised enhancements to human resources, a new anti-harassment policy, and new roles for high-profile women in the organization. Since then, the company has started an employee hotline for reporting harassment and conducted training for managers on the hotline’s use, according to David Gruber, B&B’s director of marketing.

The company has also hired a director of employee relations and is working with outside HR consultants, as well as distributing a company-wide survey, to better understand employee concerns, Gruber said. Meanwhile, chef Nancy Silverton and Lidia Bastianich, Joe Bastianich’s mother and a partner in many B&B restaurants, have assumed larger roles at the company. “Whereas historically Lidia Bastianich and Nancy Silverton have worked only with the restaurants of which they are owners, they are now working with the kitchen leadership of all 24 restaurants in the B&B portfolio,” Gruber said.

NBC News, where Lauer worked for more than 20 years, has not yet responded to a request for comment.

“How did he get away with it?”

Overall, anti-harassment advocates say that while some companies are making moves, much more change is necessary to tackle the systemic problems #MeToo helped expose. “We’re barely scratching the surface, and we need to do so much more,” said Tammy Cho, co-founder of BetterBrave, a nonprofit that offers resources and information to employees about responding to harassment. Since BetterBrave was founded in July 2017, she said, 85 percent of people who have reached out to the group have said they experienced some form of retaliation from their employer for reporting harassment.

“Companies have essentially forgotten the human aspect of human resources,” Cho said. “They too often see these individuals who report incidents of sexual harassment as legal liabilities, and they basically throw their legal team at the issue instead of trying to think about how to best resolve the situation.”

While it’s encouraging that companies are undertaking reforms, not all of them are particularly effective. Research has cast doubt on the effectiveness of sexual harassment training, for instance, though some evidence suggests that such training may have an impact when directed at managers, according to Frank Dobbin, a sociologist at Harvard who studies workplace diversity.

Anti-harassment training tends to be legalistic, said Debbie Dougherty, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri who has studied sexual harassment policies, and “the legal system is backward-looking — it’s based on precedent, things that have happened.” Companies need to protect themselves legally, she said, but to really fix the problem of harassment, training “needs to be forward-looking, based on what we need in order to change.”

Dougherty also recommended that organizations institute bystander intervention training. “With sexual harassment, people who do the behavior know they’re doing it” — but others may need help spotting it and reacting appropriately.

Gender balance is also crucial — the presence of women at every level in a company hierarchy can help protect female employees from harassment, Dobbin says. But just promoting women into leadership roles may not be enough if they have the same mindset as the men who preceded them. “There are these really deeply entrenched cultural value systems around hierarchy in the workplace, around not complaining, around being a team player and not taking things too seriously,” Alemzadeh said. “Whoever a manager or a leader is in an organization, if that’s their attitude, people aren’t going to feel comfortable coming forward and reporting.”

Many companies talk about preventing harassment by strengthening their anti-harassment policies, Alemzadeh added. However, many organizations with sexual harassment problems actually had strong policies in writing. “The problem was there was a culture in those companies that really prevented people from feeling like those were meaningful protections.”

One of the lessons of #MeToo has been the degree to which powerful harassers benefit from and even depend on others around them who actively or passively enable their behavior. Organizations with longstanding or widespread sexual harassment problems tend to have what Dougherty calls “support staff,” or “unofficial people who provide support for the predator,” she said.

To fix that problem, employers who have dismissed powerful people for harassment need to ask not just what happened but “how did he get away with it” — “what are the processes in place that allowed this individual to get away with this behavior for so long?”

Some of the recent crop of comeback stories have mentioned powerful men’s efforts at self-examination, reckoning with their pasts and contemplating their futures. Dougherty, meanwhile, calls for that kind of introspection on the part of companies and organizations, from Michigan State University to NPR, where high-profile people have been dismissed after reports of sexual misconduct. She’d like to see those employers “asking themselves, ‘What did we do to support this person’s behavior,’” she said, “which is a soul-searching at the cultural and institutional level that I don’t think these organizations have really engaged in.”