Fox News and the Pitfalls of Sexual Harassment

Over the weekend, another Fox News host has come under fire for sexual harassment. Fox News suspended Eric Bolling after three women accused him of sending lewd photos. Twitter users were quick to point out Bolling’s hypocrisy by resurrecting a Bolling Tweet from 2011, asking “why would anyone take a picture of one’s junk anyway?”Bolling’s suspension is the latest in a string of sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the network:

To date, Fox News has paid $13 million to settle claims of sexual harassment towards women by its employees. Even if Fox News doesn’t believe in feminism, its shareholders have a significant interest in avoiding lawsuits that result in million dollar payments to the other party. So can a profit minded company avoid these kinds of harassment claims?

Sexual HarassmentChange the Corporate Culture

Given the recent terminations of prominent television hosts and high ranking executives, Fox News probably has a larger issue with sexual harassment than a couple of rogue employees. Critics might be quick to point to Fox New’s political affiliations; how could an organization that defended “grab them by the pussy” not be a hostile work environment? However, most politically conservative organizations (Heritage Foundation, National Review, Federalist Society, etc.) don’t have the same sexual harassment problems that Fox News has right now. Fox News doesn’t have to change its political stances to police its employee’s sexual abuses.

One of the biggest factors is how the organization deals with sexual harassment. If the company settles a complaint and demands the victim keep quiet about his or her allegations, the problem will continue. Likewise, if the company merely transfers the harasser between departments, then the problem with persist. The harasser will feel protected and will continue with different women. The Catholic Church had similar issues for decades, transferring priests accused of sexually molesting boys between different churches while praying that the offending priests would stop if they were moved away from the initial victims.

Another big factor in corporate sexual harassment is failure to publically highlight the issue. Allegations of sexual abuse are often embarrassing for the abuser, the abusee, and the company at large. However, if the company fails to educate its employees about sexual harassment, even if employees know or suspect sexual abuse is occurring, the company will be promoting the behavior. Corporate managers might not condone sexual abuse, but failure to speak up will be read as implicit approval of the harasser’s behavior.

Ditch the Arbitration System

Fox News favors arbitration boards to settle complaints, including them in every employment contract. Although arbitration is a legal way of resolving disputes, companies relying on arbitration to address sexual harassment should use Fox News as a model of how everything can go wrong. Arbitration is best described as an informal trial. Instead of a judge, an arbitrator decides the case. Arbitration usually doesn’t follow the rules of evidence, allowing the arbitrator to make decisions faster and at a cheaper cost than a judge would.

Although arbitration is a reasonable way to settle many business disputes, sexual harassment is not the best issue for arbitration to address. In a normal trial, both parties are assured that the judge will remain objective and will consider the arguments presented by both sides. With arbitration, the arbitrator is often selected by the company itself. Even if the arbitrator is truly objective, employees making serious allegations may not trust the arbitrator to be impartial.

More importantly, arbitrations are not subject to the same rules of evidence. Corporations might favor arbitration as a cheaper alternative, but there is an important rule of evidence that makes trial more equitable for the accuser. In a normal trial, the defendant is not allowed to introduce evidence of the victim’s own impropriety as a defense.  In other words, just because Jane sleeps around with different men doesn’t mean that she welcomes John’s sexual advances. Throwing out this rule of evidence only serves to make arbitration another potential avenue to harass the victim. Even worse, arbitration is binding and appeals are rarely granted, so any decision that the arbitrator makes will be binding.

Arbitration is obviously flawed from the employee’s view, but these downsides also affect the employer. Arbitration can manage a few isolated cases, but if the floodgates open, as they are opening now for Fox News, the outpour will be more than Human Resource and in house counsel can manage. The problem with relying on a system that overwhelming favors one party is that when the other parties no longer have faith in the system, that system will collapse.

Fox News has avoided its sexual harassment claims for decades, but the built up has now destroyed the dam.  Hopefully a change in corporate culture can built a more stable foundation.

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