Helaine Olen: Why Megyn Kelly’s possible eight-figure payday matters

FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2017 file photo, Megyn Kelly poses on the set of her new show, "Megyn Kelly Today" at NBC Studios in New York. NBC announced on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018 that "Megyn Kelly Today" will not return. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Reports are circulating that Megyn Kelly’s troubled time at NBC is coming to an end following her controversial comments earlier about blackface costumes that all but reeked of racism. Despite this, it’s also seeming quite possible that if Kelly is truly out at the network, she will also collect the rest of her $69 million three-year contract as she exits.

The news of Kelly's rather extraordinary payday, for what can charitably be deemed a subpar performance, comes the same week the New York Times discovered that Andy Rubin, a high-level executive at Google and the creator of the Android operating system, received a staggering $90 million exit package when he was shown the door in 2014 following credible allegations of sexual misconduct.

There are, it's fair to say, a lot of things that are eating away at American society at the moment. But one thing that doesn't get the attention it deserves is how the wealthy and powerful get chance after chance and, even when they fail, get to exit on a generously padded slide - while the rest of us, on the other hand, too often live precarious lives, one lost job away from financial disaster.

Do you have a work contract that offers you a generous settlement in the event the company that employs you decides you are no longer needed, let alone deciding you grossly violated commonly accepted workplace behavioral standards? I doubt it. Most of us are at-will employees, people who can be fired for almost any reason at any time. If we do decide to take the matter to the courts or private arbitrator, it's unlikely we will see a six-figure payday, never mind one as generous as the one Kelly is poised to receive. According to a survey conducted by payroll firm XcelHR, the typical employee who believes they were done wrong and files a claim of some sort will receive $40,000.

This isn't true for high-ranking executives, who have the leverage and power and, frankly, friends in high places to make sure the fate they would mete out to their employees is not one they will suffer. We see this time and time again in American life. CEOs exit with absurdly generous golden parachutes no matter how dreadful their performance, while the employees they downsize or fire receive scraps. Sometimes the situations are all but absurd. At Wells Fargo, former CEO John Stumpf retired with more than $100 million in retirement benefits, apparently a reward for pushing sales goals so intense, the only way many employees could meet them was by opening fake accounts for unwitting customers.

The whistleblowers who attempted to report the scam over the years, on the other hand, were frequently shown the door. In at least one case, Wells Fargo initially refused to hire one former employee back even after ordered to do so by the Department of Labor, and only reached a confidential settlement with the woman in the face of sustained media attention.

And when it comes to #MeToo, Google is hardly alone. At CBS, even as rumors swirled about former head Les Moonves, a number of members of the company’s board of directors initially refused to take the allegations seriously. While it’s still not clear what kind of exit package Moonves will receive, here is one thing we do know: CBS’s top HR executive, who presided over CBS while others, including host Charlie Rose and “60 Minutes” honcho Jeff Fager are alleged to have grossly mistreated employees, recently got kicked to the curb with an exit package worth more than $6 million.

The situation carries over into other areas. In 2008, the banks famously got bailed out, while millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure. A 2016 report by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government found that even as Fortune 500 companies froze pension plans for the vast majority of their workforce, they did no such thing for the men and women in charge, who continued to be offered access to defined benefit packages for retirement.

Then there is Donald Trump, who has skated from bankruptcy to bankruptcy even as he's stiffed everyone from creditors to small contractors. One reason for this rather stunning track record? Many of those who lent him money decided they would lose less on the deal if they kept him in business. He was too big to fail - at least permanently.

It’s the reverse of how a fair and just society should operate. One rule for the wealthy and connected, and another for the mass of citizens is never a good thing. It corrodes our sense of fair play, leaving people angry, resentful and frequently looking for someone to blame. Yes, Kelly is out of a job - at least for now. But little matter. Her probable payday for a lackluster, offensive performance all but ensures she will never need employment again. Nice work if you can get it!

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.