Yesterday, the circus came to Chicago.  The Jussie Smollett case circus, that is.

In an effort to either make an embarrassing spectacle go away or change the subject, the Cook County State’s Attorney office announced that they were dropping charges against Empire Actor Jussie Smollett for perpetuating a hate crime hoax.  Smollett’s case in recent months had gained national and international news coverage for first its serious implications and then its absurdity.

Smollett, by every measure possible, appears to have made the entire thing up. There is evidence that he paid his attackers.  With a check!

In my book, The Arsonist in the Office, I talk about Arsonists as those who burn things down for gain, spite, ego, agenda or revenge in society.  Smollett’s motives appear to be mixed among these reasons, but he’s definitely exhibiting classic arsonist behavior.

Normally when charges are dropped, there is an explanation of legal complications or extenuating circumstances.  Not in this case.  In fact, the top deputy for the State’s Attorney Office, Joe Magats, contorted himself into a rhetorical pretzel to state that Smollett was not having his case dropped because of a lack of guilt, but because of the State’s Attorney office having some other priorities.  Police groups and even Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, were outraged, with Emanuel calling the decision “a whitewash of justice”.

It got me thinking about the message that is sent when false accusers are allowed to get away with no punishment.  Having seen it in a corporate setting that I talk about in my book, The Arsonist in the Office or in the Smollett case, bad things happen when leaders do nothing. It does all sorts of things that hurt cultures.

  1. DISTORTION–The values and standards of the society or organization are distorted when rules no longer apply to everyone
  2. DEMORALIZE–Ask the Chicago Police who worked on the Smollett case what they think of their significance today.  Or ask a manager who is told by a higher-up to ignore a serious breach of trust by an employee because of extenuating circumstances. Morale is destroyed.
  3. DESTIGMATIZATION OF BAD BEHAVIOR–False accusations have just been treated as not worthy of punishment by the State’s Attorney.  Lying to law enforcement in a very public way has been normalized in Chicago.  Same goes in an office setting when you let it happen.
  4. DEFINING  DIFFERENTLY–The new Smollett-ized version of justice now has an asterisk next to it.  The lowered standards becomethe new definition of right and wrong for every future false accuser.  
  5. DE-FANGED–Law enforcement just had a tool taken out of their tool box and officers will likely now ask ‘Why bother?’ when receiving suspicious claims in the future.  They have just been conditioned to expected it.  Same goes for managers dealing with problem employees
  6. DISSEMINATED–Everyone is sent the message that the bad behavior that is overlooked is, in fact, tolerated and will not be punished.  And, when people understand that bad behavior is acceptable, it usually spreads.
  7. DEVALUED–Those with legitimate claims are looked at with greater suspicion because of false accusers.  Their stories are often tainted by the acts of false accusers.

How are false accusers treated in your organization?  Let me know what you think.

Pete Havel is a speaker, trainer, and consultant on workplace culture and leadership.  He’s also the author of “The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures,” named as a #1 Hot New Release by Amazon. It’s available at

Pete can be reached at and 214-244-7906.

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