Why Fox News Waited too Long to Axe O’Reilly

In the early 1970s, women started to call for the implementation of guidelines to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly 50 years later, it appears as it there is still a lot of work to be done to counter sexual harassment in the workplace and well beyond.

First, during the 2016 U.S. election, the country watched as a dozen women launched sexual harassment complaints against President Trump. Then, in early 2017, a high profile complaint against Uber revealed the company’s rampant problems with workplace sexual harassment and its failure to address complaints as they came forward. Most recently, in April, Americans watched Fox News confront Bill O’Reilly–the news channel’s host with a track record of doing more than delivering the news.  Fox finally addressed the O’Reilly issue due to a massive bleed of major advertisers. But what else did the network lose over the years as it permitted O’Reilly to sexually harass the organization’s female employees?

A Long Timeline of Incidents Ignored

2002: O’Reilly was investigated for verbally abusing a junior producer who soon left Fox with a minor settlement.

2004: O’Reilly was sued again for $60 million but this time by his show’s 33-year-old associate producer. Apparently, the host liked to share inappropriate stories about his sex life and had a habit of propositioning his associate producer. This time, O’Reilly fired back with a counter suit claiming it was a form of extortion. In the end, the associate producers received $9 million and agreed to clear him publicly of any wrongdoing.

2011: After a break from the allegations, another Fox employee filed a suit similar to the 2004 suit but this time with voice recordings of O’Reilly to support the allegations. Terms of a settlement were never revealed.

2016: Two more sexual harassment complaints were brought against O’Reilly with payouts of $1 million and $1.6 million respectively. But at this time, Fox was still backing O’Reilly.

2017: Then, in early 2017, shortly after a report revealed that about $13 million in settlements had been paid to various women as a result of O’Reilly’s behavior toward women, advertisers started to pull their support. At this time, Fox finally started to listen and gave O’Reilly his walking papers.

What Fox News Lost by Waiting to Fire O’Reilly

Talent

By waiting nearly two decades to axe O’Reilly, Fox lost top talent. After all, O’Reilly didn’t discriminate. He was equally comfortable harassing his producers, guests and admin staff.  Given his ongoing and indiscriminate targeting of women, one can assume that beyond the women who launched law suits, Fox likely also lost other top talent, including emerging talent who quietly left the organization to seek jobs in safer work environments.  This is commonly known as the “talent bleed.”

As Dr. Jill Schwartz explains, the “talent bleed” caused by sexual harassment doesn’t just impact the women who are being harassed but the organization at large: “The negative atmosphere created by sexual harassment does not only affect the person that his being victimized; it also affects those who witness the harassment.” This suggest that beyond the women who were harassed and left Fox, Fox was fostering a toxic workplace and an environment unlikely to attract other top talent.

Revenue

In the end a major loss of revenue (from advertisers) spurred Fox to axe O’Reilly. Over the years, however, they also suffered other losses. Most notably, the network paid out millions of dollars to essentially silence any female employee who came forward with a complaint against its popular but sexually inappropriate host.

Viewers

While evidently O’Reilly had and still has many fans, including the President who came out early on to tweet his support for O’Reilly in the face of the sexual harassment charges, there is no question that the network’s failure to address its internal sexual harassment complaints also likely led to a bleed of viewers, especially female viewers. Even if women are not the network’s target, no major network can ultimately afford to alienate a high percentage of the population.

Talent Management Lessons

There is no question that when organizations ignore sexual harassment, they risk losing talent and revenue while also risking the integrity of their brand.  While the short-term gains of a payout may appear strategic, over time, this practice can breed a toxic workplace that lacks transparency and sends out a message to employees that women do not have the right to come forward with complaints and that men do have the right to harass their female co-workers.

 

April 30, 2017   Updated :April 30, 2017      

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