In Focus: Harassment Complaint Against O’Reilly Reveals Bigger Problems?

By Allen Smith, J.D. Apr 11, 2017

Bill O'Reilly

Following a multitude of sexual harassment claims against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, more recent allegations brought against Fox News host Bill O'Reilly may reveal a widespread culture of harassment. The new head of HR at Fox has noted that employees have several mechanisms to report bad behavior, but experts say harassment victims often struggle to do so.

Fox Hires Law Firm to Investigate Sexual Harassment Complaint

As it did when it conducted an internal investigation of Ailes, 21st Century Fox announced April 9 that it has hired the law firm of Paul Weiss to investigate an accusation of sexual harassment against O'Reilly. Wendy Walsh, a former guest on O'Reilly's show, said he broke a promise to make her a network contributor when she declined his sexual advance. O'Reilly denies the allegations. "21st Century Fox investigates all complaints and we have asked the law firm Paul Weiss to continue assisting the company in these serious matters," the company stated. (The New York Times)

Harassment Settlements Against O'Reilly Total Millions

Five women have received payouts totaling approximately $13 million in settlements to not sue or discuss their accusations of sexual harassment against O'Reilly. 21st Century Fox noted in a statement, "No current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O'Reilly, even anonymously." The revelation of these settlements follow the $20 million agreement reached last year between Fox host Gretchen Carlson and former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes over claims that Ailes harassed her. (The New York Times)

'Hotline Defense' Criticized

In an opinion column, The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan called the hotline defense "ludicrous." She quoted Nancy Erika Smith, who represented Carlson, as saying, "Going to human resources in a company like that is like going to the KGB to complain about Putin." However, Kevin Lord, the new head of HR at Fox News, noted employees can make complaints a variety of ways, including going directly to the Paul Weiss firm. (The Washington Post)

Two Risk Factors Raise Likelihood of Harassing Behaviors

There is an increased likelihood of harassment when it is allegedly perpetrated by a "high value" employee. A second risk factor is when one person has significantly more power than another. Both risk factors were, as with Ailes, present with O'Reilly. (SHRM Online)

[SHRM Online HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Reporting Rate Low Among Harassment Victims

Studies suggest a culture of underreporting sexual harassment at many organizations. Fewer than a third of harassment victims discuss harassment with supervisors and less than 25 percent file formal sexual harassment complaints with their employers, according to research by Lilia Cortina, professor of psychology, women's studies and management at the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl, professor at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business. Harassed employees often try to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the seriousness of the harassment, or ignore or endure it, if possible. (The Sage Handbook of Organizational Behavior, Chapter 25, "Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review")

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