By Jean Boler |
One of the truly heartbreaking aspects of the New York Times’s recent expose’ of the harassment complaints against its popular, politically incorrect host Bill O’Reilly, was the vicious company attack mounted against each of the women who dared come forward with complaints. The “nuts and sluts” defense is, unfortunately, as old as the laws meant to protect women from male aggression. That a company would authorize such tactics, particularly when faced with complaints from multiple women about the same pattern of conduct, underscores how much work we still need to do to protect women in their own workplaces.
The O’Reilly Saga
The first woman we know of who dared to openly challenge O’Reilly was a young producer, Andrea Mackris, who filed a lawsuit in 2004. She alleged he called her and told her about sexual fantasies he had involving her and made noises like he was masturbating. O’Reilly had told her that any woman who dared complain about him would “pay so dearly she’ll wish she was never born.” He tried to make good on that promise, filing a preemptive suit accusing her of extortion and sending a private investigator to spy on her. The goal was to portray her as a deeply in debt, promiscuous woman using false allegations to pry money out of him. After two weeks of headlines, he paid her $9 million in a confidential settlement—but claimed no wrongdoing.
Even after other women came forward with very similar stories, O’Reilly and the Fox Network still tried to intimidate his accusers with threats. When Juliet Huddy, a frequent guest on his show, echoed earlier allegations of inappropriate phone calls and pressure for a sexual relationship, O’Reilly’s lawyer sent a letter to her lawyer filled with embarrassing personal details and attacked her credibility. After another woman, Andrea Tantaros, a former on-air personality, sued Mr. Reilly for the same behavior, Fox News attacked her in court papers, saying she was not “a victim, but an opportunist” and her claims bore “all the hallmarks of the wannabe.” Fox and O’Reilly seem to never tire of the myth of the star at the mercy of promiscuous opportunists.
Protecting Yourself Against Unwanted Advances
These tactics are all too common, but there are ways to fight back if you ever find your career threatened by a powerful man with sexual propositions:
- Get legal advice from experienced employment counsel. This is difficult terrain to navigate alone. Many women lose sexual harassment cases because they don’t complain to the human resources department before leaving the company. Timely legal advice could save your job, or ensure the company has to pay for forcing you out.
- Keep texts and emails. It’s amazing how many harassers still feel safe putting things in writing. Beware, however, that friendly, or even neutral, responses to come-ons, can and will be used against you. Many women feel they can appease and avoid their harasser. Too often, pleasant emails and texts meant as a brush-off, are unfairly used to show the conduct was welcome—a defense to sexual harassment.
- Record conversations—with legal advice. Federal law and thirty-eight states, including Minnesota, allow recording phone calls and conversations with the consent of only one party (you). Again, recorded statements from a harasser are most damning when it is clear the recipient of the communication does not welcome it.
- Talk to coworkers who seem sympathetic. Other women experiencing the same conduct, or men who witness inappropriate behavior, changes the “he said, she said” dynamic. People may surprise you with their support.
Roughly 70% of those who experience sexual harassment at work never report it. Women absolutely feel that they have more to lose than gain from challenging a harasser and a work culture that condones such behavior. The women at Fox News showed that eventually the giant can be brought down. It takes persistence, bravery and a good legal strategy, but it can be done.
Jean Boler is an attorney at Schaefer Halleen specializing in discrimination and harassment. She was one of the lead counsel Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first sexual harassment class action in the country, which later became the subject of the book Class Action and the movie North Country.