Twentieth Century Fox apparently succumbed to pressures from women advocacy organizations and the exodus of advertisers and fired its most successful host, Bill O’Reilly. The organization justified this termination based on its own “extensive” investigation conducted by outside counsel into the accusations made by the five women whose past sexual harassment claims were settled before litigation, reportedly for a total of $13 million dollars, as well as similar accusations raised since this story broke by at least three other women. This decision is being described by Fox News and Twentieth Century Fox as necessary to reinforce its commitment to fostering a work environment of respect and equal employment opportunity. This decision is being applauded by advocacy groups, and the attorney representing the three new accusers describes women as having the “power to slay dragons” when they stand up and complain about harassment by powerful men.
What is ignored in this congratulatory din, however, is the fact that the first complaint about Mr. O’Reilly’s harassment occurred in 2004, and it has apparently taken over twelve years, many other formal complaints, and millions of dollars in legal settlements, before Fox News found the resolve to part ways with its most lucrative employee.
Responsible employers don’t behave this way. In fact, many have a “zero tolerance” policy when sexual harassment complaints are made, investigated and substantiated. If Fox News and its parent company had enforced such a policy, Mr. O’Reilly would likely have been shown the door over a decade ago, and the company would have been spared the additional millions in settlements, and the devastating publicity associated with this entire incident.
Why do companies allow high-profile leaders to stay on after complaints like this surface, and are clearly substantiated? The answer, unfortunately, is all too often found in the bottom line – keeping on “moneymaking” employees even in the face of illegal behavior is sometimes too tempting. The company may hope that the lesson is learned, that training can change the behavior, and that it can preserve the lucrative relationship by taking lesser “corrective” action than termination.
These companies are invariably wrong. Indeed, when high-profile employees perceive that they get a “free pass” when complaints like this arise, this emboldens them to continue the behavior, believing they are “above the rules.” When issues then inevitably emerge, the exposure to the company is magnified, and payout sometimes into the millions ensue.
The “lesson” from the belated termination of Mr. O’Reilly is that courageous women making these complaints should not have to number over five to slay the harassing dragon, but just one is all that should be necessary. One victim making a substantiated complaint of sexual harassment should be the only weapon needed to slay this kind of dragon.
Lawrence P. Schaefer has earned the respect of judges and other lawyers for his thorough and aggressive client advocacy in negotiation and litigation. He focuses exclusively on representing people who have been subject to employment discrimination at work. Larry serves as the firm’s President and head of litigation.