The most incredible thing about the Fox News-Bill O’Reilly story is just how common it is.
The first time a story of workplace sexual harassment by the boss gained widespread attention was in 1991, when then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexually harassing an employee of his when he was chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since then, workplace sexual harassment and assault stories by powerful executives have become a mainstay of headline news.
In February, we learned about Sterling Jewelers where, The Washington Post reported, company leaders “presided over a corporate culture that fostered rampant sexual harassment.” The newspaper’s reporting was based on documents obtained from an ongoing arbitration case involving affidavits from 250 former employees.
That same month, Uber — whose CEO, Travis Kalanick, told GQ magazine in 2014 that his attractiveness to women after his company’s success was the “Boob-er” effect — was back in the news when a highly regarded engineer published a devastating blog post. It outlined numerous incidences of workplace sexual harassment directed at her and other female engineers, and the lack of response by human resources and the executive management team.
The issue will continue to be a serious problem until it’s taken seriously.
The first time Fox paid money to settle a sexual harassment claim made against O’Reilly was in 2004. It cost the company $9 million, but it didn’t cost O’Reilly his job. Since that first settlement, there have been eight others involving allegations against former Fox CEO Roger Ailes, former Fox vice president Joe Chillemi, and former Fox News Washington bureau chief Brian Wilson, in addition to O’Reilly. In total, Fox has paid at least $35 million to settle lawsuits related to workplace sexual harassment and assault.
Paying $35 million to settle sexual harassment lawsuits may look like a company is taking the matter seriously. But the only reason to believe that things may finally change at Fox is that the statement issued about O’Reilly’s departure makes it clear that the sexual assault allegations against him are the reason he won’t be back on the air. That is in marked contrast with the way former Fox CEO Ailes left. He was paid $40 million to leave, and there were no admissions by Fox that his departure was related to the numerous sexual assault allegations made against him.
The most powerful way to prevent sexual harassment and assault from occurring in the workplace is to show no tolerance for it. The primary prevention tools of the last three decades have focused on changing individual employee behavior through training and sensitivity seminars. These are ineffective unless company leaders show that they take the issue of sexual harassment and assault seriously. And the most effective way to do that is to end the career of any employee engaging in sexual harassment, regardless of how promising or senior the employee is.
When senior leaders will not do that, the only way workplace culture will change is if other leaders step forward. That’s what happened to Fox and O’Reilly. When the news broke that Fox had paid $13 million since 2004 to settle sexual harassment lawsuits against him, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai announced they would no longer place ads on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Within a week, more than 80 companies joined them.
It is depressing to know that O’Reilly’s alleged offenses were not enough to cost him his career at Fox News. It took the threat of lost revenue from longtime advertisers to do it. But the good news is that companies didn’t just pull their ads. They issued statements explaining why there were doing so, and typically cautious global corporations made it clear that their corporate values did not align with the message being sent by continuing to employ someone accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment. As a spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz explained, “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
Sexual assault does not make for a “good environment.” It’s harmful first and foremost to the person assaulted. But the coverups, the payouts, and the lies corrupt and corrode the culture of a workplace. Companies and businesses in which sexual harassment and assault occur only rarely, if at all, are ones in which a culture of respect for all employees has been cultivated just as deliberately as its model for profit. Neither of those things — a profitable business and a workplace culture in which all employees are safe from sexual harassment — are created by accident. To end sexual harassment in the workplace, every company needs leaders who will insist on appropriately severe consequences for bad behavior.
Gina Scaramella is executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.