Fox News and Bill O’Reilly made what seemed like a coldblooded, bottom-line decision: that paying millions of dollars to women who accused O’Reilly of sexually harassing them was worth it to keep the star in the anchor chair. President Donald Trump’s disturbing endorsement of O’Reilly as a “good person” notwithstanding - “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump told The New York Times on Wednesday - that financial model seems to be collapsing, as advertiser after advertiser pull their spots from O’Reilly’s show. The cost of doing business as usual has suddenly skyrocketed.
And this is the thin silver lining to the sadly familiar O’Reilly story: In a time of heightened awareness of workplace inequalities and an engaged resistance movement, viewers and consumers are primed to demand - and obtain - corporate and individual accountability for abusive behavior. From the ouster of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes last summer after similar allegations to the recent uproar over claims of a culture that tolerated sexual harassment at the ride-hailing company Uber, the equation may, finally, be changing. The reaction to these episodes illuminates a path to effecting real change in how our society responds to harassment - even by the most powerful. The social and financial consequences of tolerating an abusive environment must become untenable for employers.
It is important to give women credit for bringing forth their allegations. It’s also necessary to make sure that the situation is better for the women who come after them. Firing O’Reilly, who has denied any wrongdoing, would be a start, but it would also represent an individual solution to what clearly seems a cultural problem at the network. An environment such as that at Fox News, where hierarchy and extreme loyalty are seemingly valued over compliance with the laws banning sexual harassment, makes it difficult for targets of harassment to come forward. When they do, they risk retaliation. Sexual harassment is about control, power and those who abuse it. It can be stopped only when companies recognize that everyone benefits when women can work in a workplace that is abuse-free.
Today, we’ve at least progressed to the point that there are more avenues for reporting than ever before. Yet there are still companies that pay lip service to human-resources departments while quietly allowing women to be vilified when they come forward. Engineer Susan Fowler’s description of her experience at Uber is unfortunately typical. Fowler wrote that her manager propositioned her during her first day on his team, conduct that she promptly reported - along with a screenshot of the offending messages - to human resources, which she said consistently ignored and minimized her complaints.
Fowler eventually decided to leave the company - and quickly had a new job offer in hand. Other women do not enjoy her flexibility or market power. Meanwhile, such abusive behavior is never going to end when women are bought off and moved out, often under gag orders that prohibit them from disclosing their settlements, while their harassers remain in powerful posts. Too often, employers insist on contracts that require complaints to be mediated, almost ensuring that outcomes never see the light of day.
The lack of cultural accountability for sexual harassment is not limited to Fox News, Uber or other high-profile business operations. In smaller companies, top salesmen get a pass, despite clear evidence of multiple instances of abuse. A recent report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United showed that tipped workers - waitresses - are particularly vulnerable to being kissed or grabbed against their will by co-workers, managers and customers. Over the past few years, universities have been called out for keeping high-profile professors who are top grant-getters even after they have been identified as serial harassers. Ongoing victimization all too easily becomes viewed as acceptable when establishments fail to intervene.
We can’t allow that to happen. By now, organizations have no excuse for not holding themselves accountable, but when they don’t, there are levers that can move them. What’s happening right now at Fox News is proof of that.
The public may not be able to respond to each instance of abuse or even repeated misbehavior. But whether as consumers, patrons or co-workers, we can and must take the opportunity to demand accountability for behavior that we know to be against the law. And executives must be ready to replace practices and policies that enable harassment with structures that eliminate it.
Hill is a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University.