It has to be one of the more emotionally charged questions. Why do sexual harassers harass? In particular, why in 2021, when federal law and most states’ laws clearly prohibit it, and with the MeToo movement, how and why is it still happening? There’s no way that those who sexually harass don’t know it’s illegal. Similarly, they can’t not know it’s wrong. Some employers are fortunate enough not to have had an issue with sexual harassment complaints, but still worry that, in fact, it’s only a matter of time before end up joining the ranks. Many are not so fortunate.
Before I dive into this issue, though, I want to be clear: I’m not claiming to have the answer to why, or how to stop it once and for all. Let’s be real, here. The situation in which we find ourselves didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not likely to change overnight, either. That said, there seem to be some common threads in many of these situations that could provide valuable insights to employers committed to providing their employers a respectful, safe, harassment and discrimination-free workplace. Let’s explore… If you have read my blog before, you know I like to use real, live case examples. This time is no different. Yesterday, another contributor at Fox News settled a sexual harassment claim for an undisclosed amount. The case is Brittany McHenry v Fox News Network, LLC et al. Here’s the nutshell version of what went down:
Brittany (“Britt”) McHenry is an on-air reporter. In August 2017 she first appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, and, ultimately, after appearances on other Fox News shows, was hired as a co-host with George Murdoch (aka “Tyrus”) on Un-PC, a political entertainment talk show in July 2018. Ms. McHenry alleges that between September 2018 and April 2019 Murdoch sent sexual text messages to her and made sexual advances without her consent. Here are just some of the text messages allegedly sent: “I love your legs”;“F— them your beautiful I love that picture”;“Is it creepy how I look at you ???”;“FYI you’ll need those legs to escape from me in Montana”; and “I please especially on your knees hotness[.]” I love the fact your always working if we ever had sex I feel like after an orgazzum you say speaking of feeling good did see the story on the puppy rescue we should do a segment on it hand me my phone[.]” McHenry says she did not want to impact the show and tried to respond with polite, non-sexual replies.
In December 2018 Murdoch learned that McHenry had a boyfriend, and refused to talk to her except during the taping of the show. In January 2019, McHenry reported Jennifer Rauchet, Un-PC ’s executive producer, that Murdoch had sent McHenry“inappropriate and sexual harassing text messages.”Rauchet did not report this complaint to Human Resources or otherwise investigate. On February 22, 2019, Murdoch “lashed out” at McHenry on the air, telling her she had “an ignorant point of view,” that she had “no integrity,” and that “only an idiot would say that,” which prompted McHenry to call Rauchet to make a second “sexual harassment” complaint “about Mr. Murdoch’s demeaning conduct.” Rauchet allegedly didn’t report the complaint to HR and didn’t investigate, but acknowledged that Murdoch was difficult and had sent her a “hostile” text about Un-PC. Eventually, McHenry’s agent complained to HR (after Rauchet told McHenry she was “replaceable: and that Fox “never wanted” her). The HR Representative asked for all text messages between McHenry and Murdoch, asking McHenry what she’d done to provoke Murdoch.
Fox News did assign a different reporter to co-host Un-PC with McHenry but gave Murdoch his own show. It later closed the investigation, finding that Murdoch’s conduct was not sexual harassment, because he “had no clear intent to have sex with her”. McHenry alleges that she was then subjected to retaliation, specifically that she was “mocked” by Murdoch and a co-worker, who also contacted the founder of The Federalist, (where McHenry sometimes contributed articles) criticizing him for supporting her. Fox News allegedly refused to respond to additional complaints from McHenry and instead told her to contact her attorney. McHenry ultimately followed that advice and sued, under the York City Human Rights Law.
You probably know that this particular sexual harassment claim is not Fox News’ first rodeo. You probably remember the allegations from 2016 that Fox’s then-CEO Roger Ailes made multiple unwanted sexual advances toward Gretchen Carlson. He lost his job over those allegations, as did Bill O’Reilly over similar allegations. Other women, including Megyn Kelly, came forward with their own allegations and lawsuits. Last month, the NYC Human Rights Commission fined Fox News $1m, the largest such penalty in history over sexual harassment and retaliation allegations. The fine grouped 4 “willful and wanton” violations that each had a maximum penalty of $250k. The Commission didn’t identify who was involved or whether there would be any other such cases.
No, I am not here to bash Fox News, but I do believe it provides a shining example of one key reason why sexual harassers harass. Are you ready? Here it is: Because they can. Do they know it’s illegal? They must. Do they know it’s wrong? I think they do–or at least they know that it’s wrong for others to do it. Yes, some seem to have a sense of entitlement, particularly if they are a celebrity, like George Murdoch (who, btw, still has his show on Fox News). Some of them may be high up in a company or may be considered top performers. In some cases, the employer either takes no action at all or what action it does take is too little, too late.
Here’s the bottom line: Someone who feels confident that they won’t face consequences will continue to harass and abuse (or engage in other behavior that most of us know is illegal or wrong, or both.) Most companies when sued for sexual harassment will issue a statement along the lines of “Company does not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind”. They will often cite their anti-harassment policies. Here’s the problem: Merely having a policy or saying you don’t tolerate harassment or discrimination means nothing. Even providing training, without more, is fairly meaningless. Policies, statements, and training that are not backed up by real action and commitment from the top will not curb harassment or the attendant lawsuits and costs or outcry that sparked the MeToo movement. Companies need to monitor compliance with policies, have a viable complaint mechanism, take reasonable steps to ensure that no one making a good-faith complaint experiences retaliation. Investigations need to be prompt and thorough, and employers need to hold perpetrators accountable. Employees need to feel that they can come forward and express their concerns and trust that their employer will take their concerns seriously. That’s how you make inroads toward sending a strong message that your company does not and will not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind.
George Murdoch still has his own news show with Fox and wasn’t disciplined in any way. Here is part of Fox News’ statement after the settlement announcement “While Fox News is confident it would have prevailed in the lawsuit, we are pleased that we have been able to resolve this matter without further litigation,” What about George Murdoch? Here’s his attorney’s statement: “Tyrus is pleased that the parties have reached a settlement in which the claims against him will be dismissed with prejudice. Tyrus continues to dispute and deny the allegations made against him in the lawsuit and, consistent with that view, will not be making any financial payments.”
So, why do sexual harassers harass? If Fox News is any indicator, is it really any wonder why?
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