Even just a passing glance at news headlines over the last few months reveals a troubling pattern: companies turning a blind eye when men who are important to the bottom line are accused of sexual harassment.
The year started out with a shocking blog post written by former Uber software engineer Susan Fowler who, having just joined the company, was sexually propositioned by her new supervisor the first day on the job. Fowler reported him to HR - with screen caps of the messages he sent her over the company chat system - but nothing was done. Unsurprisingly, the harassment did not stop.
Fowler was told that the supervisor, a rising star at Uber and a high performer, had been spoken to but, since it was his first offense, HR did not want to ruin a promising career over one misstep.
As it turned out, Ms. Fowler's was not the first allegation against that supervisor. What's more, he continued to harass other women after he was reported. To make matters worse, Fowler was told she might face retaliation if she stayed on his team. She ultimately left Uber after a frustrating year watching management willfully ignore rampant problems with sexual harassment and blaming the women who reported it.
Bill O'Reilly: Years of Alleged Harassment Covered Up by Fox News
Then there is Bill O'Reilly. News emerged at the beginning of April that Fox News has paid $13 million to settle as many as five harassment lawsuits against one of their most profitable and popular primetime hosts. To receive the settlements, O'Reilly's accusers promised not to go public with their allegations.
The complaints go back as far as 2002 and allege truly objectionable behavior by Mr. O'Reilly, including unwanted sexual advances and lewd comments as well as threatening retaliation against women who complained. This came after multiple - and very similar - allegations of harassment led to the departure last year of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.
Fox News announced it is investigating the harassment allegations against O'Reilly, which has only come about following the backlash received by the network. It is also likely an attempt to stem the loss of major brands who have pulled their ad dollars in the wake of the scandal. Though there have been calls for Fox News to fire O'Reilly, the organization has refused and even renewed his contract. It remains to be seen whether the investigation, which was announced after Fox News renewed O'Reilly's contract, will result in any change in O'Reilly's employment status.
After Roger Ailes left Fox News, the network promised to take harassment complaints seriously. Its handling of the O'Reilly situation shows it is still more likely to protect a powerful male employee than the women who work with and for him. Since the news broke, many women who work at Fox News have said they did not report harassment out of fear of discipline or termination.
Harassed and Ignored: What Women Can Do When Management Won't Listen
After the allegations of people such as Ailes and O'Reilly come to light, women are often asked why they do not report harassment to management. Fox News and Uber, and companies like them, are the reason why. Women who report harassment are frequently ignored. More often, however, they are threatened with retaliation ranging from discipline to outright termination.
As seen with Fox News, some companies deal with harassment complaints by forcing the issue into arbitration, a confidential process, which ties settlement payouts to non-disclosure agreements. While this may resolve the situations of individual women who experience harassment, confidentiality also means systemic change is unlikely to occur in the workplace. For many employers, it is only when what has been swept under the carpet spills out into public view that meaningful change occurs.
For women in these situations, it can seem like they do not have options. They may take the step of bringing a formal complaint only to have it ignored or result in the loss of their job.
There are, however, things women can do, both as individuals, and collectively. Probably the best place to start before taking any action is to discuss the situation with an experienced employment litigator. Often just talking through various scenarios and possible outcomes and responses can provide a path forward.
Sometimes, a completely untenable situation can only be addressed through litigation. This may be an individual lawsuit or, if the company has a pattern of condoning harassment, a class action. Again, talking through options with counsel is the best way to decide how to approach any kind of lawsuit.
Companies such as Uber and Fox News should not be allowed to foster an environment that supports one group of employees while creating a toxic work environment for others. Nor should bad PR or the loss of advertising dollars be the reason a company steps up to do the right thing by all of its employees.