Editorial: Think Fox News has problems? Hesitancy to report harassment widespread

Many incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace, such as those leveled at Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, are never reported.
Many incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace, such as those leveled at Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, are never reported. AP

Complain our way or don’t be heard at all.

Fox News channeled this message after a story broke alleging that famed host Bill O’Reilly has a long history of sexually harassing women.

Whether you love or loathe O’Reilly’s style and politics, the unfolding saga deserves further scrutiny.

About three out of four people who are harassed at work never report it to a supervisor, manager or union rep, according to a government study. Even fewer — 6 to 13 percent — make a formal complaint.

Some of the reasons why are evident in the O’Reilly story.

The New York Times recently reported that either O’Reilly, Fox News or the cable network’s parent company had paid $13 million to five women. The money was supposed to keep the women quiet, precluding them from suing or talking publicly about their allegations detailing O’Reilly’s behavior.

21st Century Fox issued a statement saying, “no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously.”

So Wendy Walsh did. Once a regular guest on Fox, Walsh called the hotline and posted a video of the phone call to YouTube. Apparently, that finally moved Fox. Several days later, 21st Century hired a law firm to further investigate the claims against O’Reilly, who has since announced an extended vacation.

Walsh told her story to the Times, but she was not among the women who received settlements. She says O’Reilly retaliated when she rebuffed his advances, which ended her appearances on the network. Walsh is not looking for cash. There is no lawsuit. She simply wants her allegations to be taken seriously.

In that desire, Walsh mirrors many women who are reluctant to go through corporate channels that often inadvertently dissuade, rather than encourage, workers who are considering filing a complaint. Employees calculate the potential damages first. What will it cost, career-wise and personally, to make an allegation? If their risks appear to be high, they will keep quiet. Or they move on and find other work.

This solves nothing. Businesses must cultivate an atmosphere where employees believe they will be heard and have confidence that even the powerful will be held accountable. That has to be backed up by action, with messages delivered by senior-level people and in ways that go far beyond words in antiseptically curated press statements.

Stopping the behavior — not mitigating damages or buying silence later — is the goal. Fox News may well lose its highest profile host in this imbroglio. But the O’Reilly story, unfortunately, is a well-publicized example of issues that are poorly managed in many workplaces.