Sexual Harassment Allegations Against Bill O'Reilly Just Put A Spotlight On Fox News. Let's Turn It On Workplace Culture, Too.

The O'Reilly allegations raise a lot of questions.

Bill O'Reilly leaves Fox News for vacation this week, and there is swirling speculation that he may never come back.

The controversial political pundit is in the midst of a big and ugly scandal surrounding several allegations of sexual harassment. After a bombshell New York Times investigative report hit the newsstands, public outrage ensued. The report claimed that the television star has settled with five women for a total of $13 million dollars over various sexual harassment and verbal charges,

A Twitter campaign helped put pressure on advertisers to stop buying commercials on his show, the most-watched on Fox News. As a result, more than 60 advertisers dropped O'Reilly and his primetime slot began being filled with cheap-looking infomercials.



After hiring Mark Fabiani — a crisis communications expert who worked for the Clinton White House — O'Reilly sent a statement in response to the Times story.

"Just like other prominent and controversial people," the statement read, "I'm vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity. In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline. But most importantly, I'm a father who cares deeply for my children and who would do anything to avoid hurting them in any way. And so I have put to rest any controversies to spare my children." 

After O'Reilly defended himself by claiming that no complaints had been filed against him at the Human Resources Department or through Fox News's anonymous hotline, Lisa Bloom — the attorney for Walsh — uploaded a YouTube video of the pair filing a complaint on the hotline.

Not long after, she got a call from Fox News lawyers. To her surprise, the Fox News lawyers were the ones gearing up to prepare an investigation into Walsh's claims. Bloom found this development to be even more disturbing, since Fox News lawyers would obviously have an interest in protecting the organization and not her client. Many corporations, she noted on Twitter, hire independent investigators to examine claims of sexual harassment.

Walsh's decision to not file a formal complaint is far more common than the alternative: only 2 percent to 13 percent of people who have been harassed file a formal complaint and only a quarter to a third report it to a colleague. That data, compiled by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, is a startling reminder that many cases of harassment go under-reported.

Some victims say they fear retaliation, while many are unclear what constitutes legal harassment. An analysis of 86,000 respondents to sexual harassment surveys found that 58 percent of women report experiencing behaviors that are considered sexual harassment, while just 24 percent report experiencing sexual harassment itself.

Via The New York Times:

An analysis of 55 representative surveys found that about 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment, but when they are asked about specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors, the share roughly doubles.  

O'Reilly's main defense — that nobody previously reported the crimes via an official channel— is a reminder of the weight that organizations investigating claims place on following protocols that they set up exactly, regardless if those protocols are the best way to help victims.

At the same time, critics say there is no reason Fox News shouldn't have opened an internal investigation on their own when allegations regarding O'Reilly first surfaced in the early 2000s. O'Reilly settled the lawsuits privately, without the help of Fox News's parent company 21st Century Fox or its team of lawyers. Fox News's most public and vigilant response only came after advertisers for O'Reilly's show — which generated about $446 million in ad revenue between 2014 and 2016 — started fleeing. 

The optics on this are clear: if you want to put pressure on an organization as big as Fox News, you have to target their wallet. Help inside the company is one thing, but social campaigns and external pressure are sometimes the best sources of leverage. Look no further than United Airlines

In the wake of The New York Times report, O'Reilly's rating skyrocketed. Intrigue about whether he would respond to the allegations — "no press is bad press" — improved his ratings while advertisers fled. Instead of tuning in to watch the show, though, people seeking to demonstrate their displeasure would have been wiser to boycott him entirely. Showing solidarity could have gone beyond pressuring advertisers.

Of course, the first thing that needs to be improved is workplace culture.

If a woman is harassed by a man of power who has a reputation for harassment — someone like O'Reilly — why should she believe her accusations will cause repercussions? Obviously, previous allegations did little to stop him. If she believes going to H.R. will only cause a headache for her, and that the incident may come up when she tries to find a different job, will she still want to report it?

Experts say the best way to alleviate these issues is to make sure woman are represented in H.R. departments and leadership teams, and to provide avenues for women to report harassment anonymously. Studies have shown that in male-dominated workplaces sexual harassment is more common and — interestingly — "relative to non-supervisors, female supervisors are more likely to report harassing behaviors and to define their experiences as sexual harassment."

When women do have the courage to come forward with an allegation, they should be greeted with support. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but assuming a claim is only legitimate if there's verifiable evidence when multiple employees have accused someone of harassment is counter-intuitive — the women's claims and the similarities between them are evidence. 

It's hard to say what will come of O'Reilly's scandal, but one thing is for sure: women, men and corporations everywhere still have a lot to learn when it comes to improving how we handle sexual harassment allegations.

The good news is we have plenty of places to look for solutions.

Cover image via Shutterstock.