Article originally posted in and nationally syndicated by the American City Business Journals on April 10, 2017.
It seems that nearly a day doesn’t go by without new allegations of a hostile working environment and sexual harassment at Fox News.
The number of lawsuits and financial settlements continues to increase, as does the damage to the reputation of the organization.
Former Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” have been accused by a growing number of women of sexual harassment as well as retaliation for resisting their advances.
Ailes resigned in July 2016. O’Reilly, who has a history of being accused of sexual harassment, still holds his job. His show garners high ratings and generates significant viewership and earnings for Fox News.
Andrea Tantaros, a former Fox commentator and host, sued Fox News after she faced retaliation for complaining about Ailes’ advances. She described the culture within Fox News as a “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult.”
A written statement from Fox
Do powerful men think they can get away with disrespectful behavior toward women by virtue of their positions or perceived importance to their company? Do they believe they are untouchable?
On April 1, The New York Times reported that it had received a written statement from the parent company of Fox News stating, “21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously.
“Notwithstanding the fact that no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr. O’Reilly.
“While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr. O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility. Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News.”
The fact that no one used the hotline to report the actions of Ailes or O’Reilly indicates that network management was not trusted to take action or protect those who suffered sexual harassment or retaliation, even if the caller using the hotline was anonymous. Instead, they decided to go the legal route. This is a very serious indictment of the Fox News culture.
Costs to Fox News
There is a financial cost to Fox News for tolerating this toxic culture, in addition to the cost to its reputation. In a settlement of alleged sexual harassment claims against Ailes, Fox News commentator Gretchen Carlson was paid $20 million. Ailes was paid $40 million by Fox News to leave the network. A total of $13 million was paid to five women who allegedly suffered sexual harassment by O’Reilly.
There is another cost to Fox News: being labeled as a company with a hostile work environment toward women. No business can afford to not welcome 50 percent of the population and not treat them as valued employees.
Within the last week, it’s been reported that “The O’Reilly Factor” has lost many sponsors including Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, BMW, Lexus, T. Rowe Price, Allstate and GlaxoSmithKline, who did not want to be associated with O’Reilly.
Mercedes-Benz released a statement saying, “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
A better response
What would have been a more powerful response to this sexual harassment scandal than the April 1 statement released to The New York Times by 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ: FOX)? It would be a statement by Fox CEO James Murdoch to the company’s employees and to the public in which he says a company culture that disrespects women is no longer tolerated, and those who continue to do so will face sanctions up to and including termination. Murdoch can still make such a statement. Will he?
O’Reilly has a very loyal following of viewers with conservative views who are unlikely to abandon watching his show. How will Murdoch weigh viewership, the loss of sponsors and doing what is right? What will he tell the Fox board?
On Sunday, 21st Century Fox announced that it will investigate the sexual harassment claims against O’Reilly, an action that should have been taken much earlier.
Every CEO is responsible for the tone at the top and for the cultural norms within his or her company. It’s up to the board of directors of all companies to hold the CEO accountable for tone and culture. Those that don’t are not doing their jobs.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.