Delay Was the Critical Factor in the Bill O’Reilly Story

It’s no longer breaking news that Bill O’Reilly has been ousted from his exalted spot in the heart of the Fox News nightly line-up. The real story behind the scenes, however, is how long it took to get to that point.

It has been reported that after Fox and O’Reilly himself paid over $13 million to settle 5 different claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, nearly 50 advertisers withdrew their business from the program.  Then and only then did Fox News’ parent company authorize an investigation into other allegations of improper conduct, which led them finally to part ways with mega-star O’Reilly.  With all the notice they had about O’Reilly’s behaviors, the company’s decision to fire O’Reilly now is widely seen as merely a cave-in to mounting financial pressures.

Hush Money Rarely Stays Quiet

One of the key elements of this story is that O’Reilly was the biggest of the big dogs at Fox News. It is easy to understand how any employer, large or small, might be enticed into trying to work things out when the allegations involve their biggest star, their highest sales producer or their best worker.  The employer may think “We’ll settle the case, my heavy hitter will change his ways, and we can all get back to business.”

This might work but the risks are huge. As in the O’Reilly matter, one settlement often leads to another, and another, and another as word gets out (despite confidentiality clauses in the agreement) or because the employer’s timidity emboldens the offending employee to keep harassing others with perceived impunity.

In addition, if and when a future claim cannot be settled and the case goes to court, the employer will have to answer for why they never really tried to stop the behavior and chose instead just to clean up after it.  At that point, the company’s policy heralding a harassment-free environment will look more like a calculated cost-benefit analysis.

Inaction Has Consequences

The monetary impact of O’Reilly’s behavior has been well-chronicled – the cost of the settlements, the advertising dollars lost and the $25 million that was paid to him upon his departure.  However, any employer in this situation stands to lose a great deal more in human cost.  Consider the targets of the harassing behavior, all of whom were hired because of their great talent and potential but who now exhibit diminished productivity, creativity and morale as a result of the behaviors and the lack of effective oversight or response by management.

Consider also the lost contributions of the highly skilled and valuable women (and men) that choose to leave an employment setting like this, or who elect never to seek employment there because of the reputed work environment.  Perhaps the next heavy hitter (hopefully one who does not harass co-workers) might have come from amongst that group but the opportunity to find that out will now be lost.

Finally, there is the potential cost associated with other employees who view management’s inaction as a sign that harassing behavior is acceptable in the work environment, and perhaps even welcomed or encouraged.

It’s All About the Behavior, Not the Person

The ultimate cost of the O’Reilly saga to Fox News may not be known for quite some time, if ever.  Recovery might be relatively quick as Americans often are a forgiving people when it comes to these sorts of transgressions.   On the other hand, diminished ratings, and the corresponding drop in advertising revenue, may stay with them for some time.

For the less high-profile employer, the combined threats of million dollar litigation, impaired reputation and reduced productivity demand that no employee be treated as if they are above the rules.  Allegations against the heavy hitter should be addressed and resolved just as they are with any other worker.  To do otherwise will mean that the employer pays more and more money with each settlement, yet still ends up in court eventually defending decisions that will appear self-interested and dismissive of employee rights.

Bottom Line

Nobody is indispensable.  The rules regarding harassment prevention must apply to everyone in the organization in order to avoid appearing, as Fox News does to so many, as if they were willing to assign a dollar value to the safety and dignity of their employees.