When Fox News was forced to part ways with their wildly successful host Bill O’Reilly this week, many pointed out an all-too-common problem in many American businesses: a culture that tolerates sexual harassment.
Thirty years after the Supreme Court ruled such behavior a form of illegal discrimination in the workplace, there remain significant gaps between the nation’s social ideals and the realities on the job. To change workplace culture, many professionals say, it's not so much policies or training that make a difference but the tone established by leaders.
“First and foremost is, there’s a tone at the top of those companies that deal with it most effectively, showing that they care about instilling a culture of respect and integrity for all employees,” says Lisa Banks, founding partner of Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C., where she concentrates on employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases. “So it starts at the top. You have to have leadership, and you have to have accountability, and that has to be driven all the way through the ranks.”
A major study of sexual harassment in the workplace, released last year by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, concluded that “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”
So instead, the commission recommended that companies include new types of training, including “workplace civility” workshops and “bystander intervention” training. Merely having effective reporting and response systems in place isn't enough, workplace training “needs to be part of a holistic, committed effort to combat harassment, focused on the specific culture and needs of a particular workplace,” wrote Victoria Lipnic, an EEOC Commissioner and co-chair of the federal task force on sexual harassment.
Fox 'should have known better'
The downfall of Mr. O’Reilly, one of the most successful news show hosts of his generation and a cultural icon whose brash, defiant conservatism became the foil and satiric avatar of comedians like CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert, was the second time in nine months the top-rated Fox News channel had to dismiss an iconic member of its staff after numerous women described a pattern of sexual harassment.
Last July, Fox was forced to oust its innovative news chief, Roger Ailes, who vaulted the company to record profits and industry-leading ratings over the course of his two decades in power. Women who worked for Mr. Ailes, including top news anchors, described his unwanted advances and lewd comments. Both O’Reilly and Ailes deny all the allegations against them, but the company has paid out tens of millions of dollars to settle their claims.
“This is a sophisticated, New York-based business, this is not a mom-and-pop workplace where they might not know the law or how to comply with it," says Joe Santoro, co-chair of the labor and employment practice group at Gunster, a Florida-based business law firm. "It is well-represented by top legal counsel, staffed with knowledgeable and competent human resource professionals – so this is a surprise to me that these types of issues were such a problem for so long, because they should have known better.”
In hypercompetitive industries still dominated by men, scholars say that the intersection of human desires, rituals of power and the language of dominance, as well as ideas of stereotyped gender roles, can set the tone of a “locker room” culture. Women are seen as symbols of unmasculine weakness or as objects of status to be possessed, scholars say.
The US military continues to wrestle with a deeply ingrained culture that many say fosters sexual harassment throughout its ranks. There was the Tailhook scandal of the 1990s and this year’s revelations that a private Facebook group, which included some 30,000 Marines and Navy corpsmen, was used to exchange sexual photos of fellow female service members and post messages glorifying sexual violence.
The importance of zero tolerance
While it's important how a company deals with the aftermath of a sexual harassment case, that in itself doesn't transform the workplace environment.
Katina Sawyer, a professor in the human resource development program at Villanova University near Philadelphia, says "a zero-tolerance policy for harassment is necessary to counterbalance the long-standing culture."
“Ambiguity around sexual harassment policies breeds negative behaviors,” Professor Sawyer continues. “If companies want to make it clear that sexual harassment is not tolerated, they need to have clear reporting channels and take consistent action when allegations are found to have merit.”
In order for them to do that however, employees must have faith in the system and be willing to report incidents, wrote Ms. Lipnic, the EEOC Commissioner, in last year's report.
But many don’t, and a major problem is indeed convincing bystanders and witnesses, as well as those being harassed, to be willing to step forward and go through a difficult process. In 2015, the EEOC received nearly 30,000 allegations of workplace harassment – but only 1 of 4 cases are reported, the agency says.
“When it winds up on the litigation side, someone might make a complaint, or say they witnessed something, but then one of the first things they say is, ‘I don’t really want to get involved,’” says Michael Marra, an employment law attorney and co-regional managing partner at Fisher Phillips in New York. “‘I’m worried that I’m going to get in trouble for this,’ they say. But, hey, if you’re the employee raising the issue, it’s not fair if you won’t support what you know.”
“But as a company you cannot just say, ‘Is this person just not serious about this allegation?’ ” Mr. Marra continues. Or is the reluctance "because we as a company are not making people feel comfortable, letting them know that they’re not going to suffer any repercussions for being involved in raising this issue?”