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Lessons From The FOX News Sexual Harassment Scandal

What can we learn from how the sexual harassment scandal surrounding FOX news and former host Bill O’Reilly has been handled?  We have learned that money talks and that a “blame or shame the victim” mentality is still prevalent when it comes to how companies respond to sexual harassment allegations – particularly when it comes to high-profile employees who generate a substantial amount of revenue for the company.

Bill O’Reilly was the highly popular host of The O’Reilly Factor on FOX news.  By all accounts, his show was the top-rated cable news program for 15 years and brought in approximately 150 million in ad revenue annually.  He has also been the subject of numerous sexual harassment complaints, many of which came on the heels of similar sexual harassment allegations against former FOX News Chairman Roger Ailes.  Reports indicate that FOX News paid several million dollars to settle the sexual harassment allegations against Ailes, and that they also paid approximately 13 million dollars to settle five sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly – all with confidentiality agreements that prohibited harassment victims from commenting about what had happened to them and contained an acknowledgement that “no wrongdoing occurred.”  Other news reports indicate that when faced with a sexual harassment suit to be filed be a former producer, FOX and O’Reilly sued her before she could file her suit against him and hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her, as well as a public relations firm to shape the narrative in a manner favorable to FOX and to O’Reilly.  Their goal – to portray her as a promiscuous woman who was deeply in debt and trying to shake down O’Reilly.  Other women alleging sexual harassment against O’Reilly were similarly threatened with exposure of embarrassing personal information or litigation against them if they pursued sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly.  What happened to O’Reilly?  While he is no longer on the air at FOX, he was reportedly paid 25 million dollars to leave.  Not a bad payday for him either.  It certainly is better than what his victims got.  O’Reilly is a proven commodity and he will likely land on his feet somewhere else and continue to be paid well for what he does.  Too bad the same cannot be said for his victims.

Sadly, this reaction to allegations of sexual harassment is all too commonplace.  I have handled many sexual harassment cases that have turned into a powerplay.  All too often the initial response from defense counsel to a pre-suit demand or the filing of a lawsuit is an offer to settle the case for a nominal amount in exchange for a release of claims, no admission of liability and a confidentiality agreement.  Often it will also include an agreement by the sexual harassment victim to resign her position if she is a current employee.  This is often accompanied by a not so veiled threat from defense counsel that things could get ugly for her too if she proceeds – she will be branded as promiscuous, a malcontent or a poor job performer (or all of the above).  In reality – it is simply a continuation of the bullying that characterized the underlying sexual harassment claim.  The employer does not care about having to pay some money; its aim is to protect its reputation through “buying” silence, a signed admission from the employee that nothing improper or illegal happened, and a quiet exit.  Money talks.  While many employees will agree to settle under those circumstances, the settlement usually does little to compensate the victim for what she was forced to experience.

What the FOX scandal teaches us is that sexual harassment is not going away any time soon.  A recent study found that 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work.  Very few women report sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation.  Companies will attempt to use that fear to their advantage, particularly when the individual accused of harassment generates a substantial amount of revenue for the company.  Companies will continue to use nuisance settlements to buy silence and a signed “admission” that no wrongdoing occurred.  Money talks!

It also teaches us that this approach has its limits.  It is only when sexual harassment victims come forward that the corporate mindset displayed by business like FOX can be changed.  FOX did not terminate O’Reilly simply because of what he did – FOX only terminated him when advertisers began pulling their ads from his show which had the potential to cost FOX far more in revenue than it did to simply pay him to go away.  Money talks in both directions.

The Herron Law Offices and Cleveland employment attorney Mark Herron are committed to fighting sexual harassment in the workplace.  If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact us for a free consultation.

Ohio attorney Mark Herron has been practicing law in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio for over 20 years. Mark opened his law firm in Cleveland in 1993 and since then has concentrated his practice in a variety of areas, including employment law, bankruptcy law, domestic relations law, personal injury, insurance law, business law and litigation.

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