Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

How companies can prevent sexual harassment

Bill O’Reilly on the set of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Associated Press/Richard Drew
Bill O’Reilly on the set of “The O’Reilly Factor.”

It’s been a remarkable thing to watch, the way sexual swinishness is catching up with a broad array of harassers, destroying their careers. And not just in Hollywood. One hard-to-avoid conclusion is that the media is another industry with a serious sexual harassment problem.

Bill O’Reilly’s demise came as no particular shock, given his bullying demeanor. Once the conservative cable news king, he’s now in media exile — and raving like a lecherous Lear upon the moor that the allegations are part of a conspiracy against him. That despite the $45 million O’Reilly or Fox reportedly paid to settle sexual harassment claims.

But the piggishness of Mark Halperin was a surprise, at least to me. Although he denies it, Halperin seems to have reveled in groping and pushing himself against female ABC News employees. Like O’Reilly, Halperin now finds himself a pariah — his MSNBC contract, his upcoming book, and an HBO series based on it, all canceled.

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This week, Mike Oreskes was forced from his post as NPR’s senior vice president for news, following claims he had harassed several women, two of them during his days as Washington bureau chief for The New York Times.

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Supposedly urbane Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of the New Republic, turns out to have been a culture vulture who engaged in inappropriate touching and forced kisses and reveled in making female staffers uncomfortable with sexual talk. Funding for his new venture, a magazine to be called Idea, has dried up. Further, New Republic president and publisher Hamilton Fish has taken a leave after accusations about his own behavior.

In Hollywood, of course, the post-Weinstein reckoning continues at dizzying speed, with new revelations almost every day. Locally, Boston-based Fidelity recently fired two top executives.

“The good news is that we are taking these stories seriously,” says human resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann. The bad news: In her estimation, we have barely scratched the surface.

“I don’t know any woman in America who doesn’t have a sexual harassment story, and that includes me,” she says.

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One hopes the career consequences we’re seeing will serve as a warning to would-be harassers that this kind of behavior is no longer acceptable. But how to drive home that message on a more systematic basis?

One key, says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a prominent human resources consultancy, is for management to send a clear signal that even if boorish behavior has been tolerated in the past, it won’t be any longer. To be effective, however, that message has to come from the top down, he says. But in the thousands of sexual harassment awareness sessions Lewis has done in the past decade and a half, he says, “I can’t tell you how many times the chairs for the CEO and the C-suite have been empty.”

And when someone is fired for sexual harassment, firms shouldn’t keep the reason for their termination secret, says Ruettimann. Let employees know.

Another idea: Companies could hire outside human-resources consultants to conduct yearly confidential interviews with employees about the workplace atmosphere. (Include the interns, who are often the most vulnerable.) The consulting team could then give managers a sense of behaviors and concerns that need to be addressed.

Further, if anyone had been the target of harassment, they could identify the perpetrator anonymously. A firm obviously can’t fire someone based on an anonymous complaint. But the mere knowledge that such listening sessions would occur could have a deterrent effect. And if a particular employee were the subject of credible accusations, management would realize it had a problem. It could then ask the human resources consulting team to inform the victims that others had been similarly harassed and ask if they wanted to pursue a joint complaint.

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It will take a concerted effort, but this epidemic has got to end.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.