The recent departure of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly following multiple allegations of either sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior is a cautionary tale that warrants mandatory retelling in human resources departments and during meetings that employers (almost regardless of size) have with their managers.

For those who may not have followed the reports, Mr. O’Reilly left Fox News after allegations of sexual harassing behavior and other misconduct were made against him. Mr. O’Reilly has denied wrongdoing arguing, among other things, that no employee ever took advantage of the company’s hotline to raise concerns about his behavior, even anonymously.

What lessons can employers learn from these events?

  1. The establishment of sound and effective reporting policies is critical. Former employees who made allegations against Mr. O’Reilly argued that the company’s anonymous hotline system, which was established to address harassment complaints, was not widely known, was ineffective, and was a poor method of addressing the complaints of employees. As a general matter, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reported that many employees who claimed to have experienced harassment do not report it typically for fear of retaliation or indifference. It is essential that employers establish reporting policies that are effective, accessible, and which will be enforced consistently regardless of the identity or stature of the individual against whom complaints have been made.
  2. Employers must communicate to employees that they are going to treat complaints of harassment and discrimination seriously and responsibly. With the assistance of experienced counsel, employers should establish policies for handling the investigation of harassment complaints; train managers how to investigate these complaints; monitor whether these procedures are being followed; and ensure that these procedures are being applied regularly and consistently.
  3. Regularly conduct in-person harassment training. Many employers believe (incorrectly, in my view) that harassment training can be conducted solely through online tutorials. These tutorials may communicate the technical aspects of what constitutes harassment. However, it is less clear whether these tools accurately and fully communicate to employees how they should communicate complaints; how these complaints will be considered by management; how these complaints will be investigated by management; and whether they provide adequate assurances that retaliation will not occur.

The final tally of the personal, financial, and reputational costs to all impacted by the allegations made concerning Mr. O’Reilly remain to be seen. What is clear is that this highly publicized matter should remove any lingering doubt that may have existed in the minds of employers regarding whether harassment claims must be taken seriously, and whether sound and properly updated policies and procedures for handling harassment claims must be established.

Marc Engel is an employment attorney and litigator at Lerch, Early & Brewer who regularly counsels clients on how to comply with state and federal employment statutes and wage hour laws. For more information on handling harassment claims, contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or [email protected].