Newly promoted executive Loren Mayor tells Moneyish how the public radio organization is striving for greater inclusion and accountability after Michael Oreskes’ firing.
This is NPR, rebuilding trust after a sexual harassment scandal.
The national public radio organization promoted three women within its executive team Thursday — including chief operating officer Loren Mayor, who has led an effort to shift NPR’s culture since a top news exec departed over misconduct allegations last year, to serve in a newly created president of operations role.
The nonprofit also announced it would elevate executives Anya Grundmann and Gemma Hooley, respectively, to SVP for programming and audience development and SVP of member partnership. NPR isn’t necessarily trying to make a statement with its all-female promotion lineup, according to Mayor — after all, it’s “an organization that has always had strong women at its core,” she said, citing “founding mothers” like journalists Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts.
“All three of us who are being promoted at this time are people who have really come up and helped build this organization and organizations in public media,” Mayor, 48, told Moneyish. “So in many ways, this is a recognition of that hard work and that effort that we’ve all played to help strengthen this organization — and we are certainly deeply committed to strengthening the culture here to be as innovative and inclusive as possible.”
The promotions came months after Michael Oreskes, NPR’s former senior vice president for news, was forced to resign in November after allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. (“I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility,” Oreskes, 64, said in a statement at the time.) A Feb. 19 report resulting from an outside probe found that concerns had been raised over Oreskes’ conduct as early as the hiring process, and that the exec had received repeated warnings about sexual harassment.
Staffers also had a “very prominent distrust of management at NPR,” the report said. Employees expressed skepticism and called for accountability during a “tense” Feb. 22 all-staff meeting with board members after the report’s release, according to an NPR report.
“I want to believe that they are committed to fixing the problem. I believe that there are lot of people here who are committed to fixing the problem,” “Morning Edition” senior supervising editor/producer Alicia Montgomery said at the time. “I’m not sure that the people in leadership are more committed to solving the problem than committed to ending the public and embarrassing conversation about it.”
Amid “a lot of emotion and a lot of anger” within the organization in the wake of Oreskes’ firing last fall, Mayor said, she embarked on a listening tour, holding “dozens and dozens” of hour-long sessions with employees. “I just asked people to talk about why they were upset, what was wrong,” she said, “and to the degree that they had thoughts and suggestions on what we should be doing differently, to let me know.”
After taking a beat to synthesize what she’d heard, Mayor says she created a “roadmap,” sharing it with the entire staff and soliciting feedback. The map contained five broad categories that aimed to address the past, fix processes, “understand the facts,” strengthen workplace culture, and solidify the leadership team. Mayor outlined 21 specific action items that fell under the various categories, she said, and shares weekly updates with the entire staff on their progress — keeping the mission “front and center.”
The first action item was the independent report published in February. Others included clarifying the complaint process, creating mandatory in-person harassment training to replace a bi-annual online training, conducting a climate survey, boosting HR capacity, and launching an anti-harassment “peer support group” of trained volunteer colleagues. “It was a staff-initiated idea, and it kind of grew out of that sense that there are trusted people throughout organizations who people would feel comfortable going to — and who could really help make sure that if there are issues, they get surfaced,” Mayor said of the support group.
The organization has instituted additional “checks and balances” on the executive team, Mayor added, so that any issues raised against executive leadership are immediately flagged to the board chair and vice chair. And leadership tries to set the tone around what constitutes acceptable behavior, Mayor suggested. “We try to model that wherever we can,” she said. “I hope that in addition to all these other things, people begin to see that this is a place where we value those things — and if you have an issue and you raise it, it will be taken seriously.”
Mayor, asked what she’d learned from the past several months, says she came to appreciate the importance of understanding power dynamics.
“Power dynamics are at the root of so much — it can get expressed in one terrible way, as sexual harassment, but it also manifests itself in many other ways,” she said. “One of the things it’s made me think about is, if you’re in a setting, if you’re in a meeting, what is the experience for the person with the least amount of power there? … If they don’t feel like they can speak out, say what’s on their mind, raise an issue, then we haven’t created as strong a workplace as we need to. And that is a lesson that I’ve learned and I wish I understood more earlier.”
People work at NPR “because they are so passionate about what they do,” Mayor said — and workers there were disappointed and angry in the Oreskes aftermath, she argued, “because they cared so much” and held leadership and the organization to a high standard.
“I said many times … I would pick anger over apathy any day of the week,” Mayor said. “I would rather be at a place where people care so much that they want us to be the strongest institution we can.”
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