Making Harassment Hotlines Work

In its initial defense of the beleaguered Bill O'Reilly, Fox News maintained that not one of his accusers used the company's harassment hotline to make claims against O'Reilly. Experts say the Fox case holds lessons on how to ensure HR hotlines do what they were designed to do.

Thursday, May 11, 2017
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A lot of unseemly details have emerged in the wake of multiple women stepping forward with claims they were subjected to sexual harassment by the now-former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.

In high-profile harassment cases such as this one, it's the allegations of unwanted advances and creepy come-ons that draw public attention and drive online traffic. But another, less salacious aspect of this particular story may be of real interest to HR professionals.

Experts say the case at Fox could teach HR professionals a lesson in the implementation of hotlines and other avenues for employees to report workplace harassment.

Fox ultimately decided to part ways with the embattled O'Reilly -- who reportedly received a severance package in the neighborhood of $25 million -- after losing scores of advertisers for the crucial prime-time slot the O'Reilly Factor once occupied.

But, in its initial defense of O'Reilly, the company maintained that none of his accusers -- a group that included former Fox News contributors and on-air personalities -- had ever used the company's anonymous harassment hotline to report any untoward behavior on O'Reilly's part.

Spokespeople for 21st Century Fox have told media outlets that a hotline designed to allow Fox employees and contributors to anonymously report harassment has been set up at the organization since 2004. But some former employees -- including one-time Fox News anchor Alisyn Camerota, who spent 15-plus years with the organization -- say they never heard of it.

Camerota, now with CNN, told the New York Times that she had "attended two sessions about sexual harassment during her last years at Fox, and that she did not recall participants ever being alerted to a hotline.

"There was no mention of a hotline," she told the paper. "Basically they just give you scenarios where you have to determine if that constituted harassment." the same April article, an attorney for former Fox News personality Andrea Tantaros -- who has claimed to have endured sexual harassment at the hands of since-deposed Fox News chief Roger Ailes -- told the Times that Tantaros was "never alerted to the existence of any hotline, and never heard any Fox employee ever use it."

A key lesson here is that HR must ensure that employees understand these resources are available -- and are unafraid to use them, says David S. Rosenthal, a Boston-based partner in Nixon Peabody's labor and employment group.

"The fear of retaliation is the main reason employees do not use hotlines to report sexual harassment, even in companies that do sexual harassment training with their employees," says Rosenthal. "Employers must make training on the available reporting mechanisms -- including hotlines -- part of that training course."

Susan Divers encourages inviting employees to raise issues of concern pertaining to harassment through multiple means.

"Those [channels] can include a hotline, HR, ethics, legal or line managers," says Divers, a senior advisor at LRN, a New York-headquartered firm that advises organizations on culture and ethics.

At General Electric, for example, employee desktop computers include a microphone icon that leads directly to a screen where workers can express concerns or issues, and can do so anonymously if they so choose, she says.

Anti-harassment training should extend to managers as well, adds Divers.  

"Research shows that most complaints and concerns go to managers," she says. "Managers need to be trained to listen, respond, ensure resolution and, above all, avoid retaliation."

When complaints are received, managers and HR leaders must ensure they are investigated and, if necessary, see that action is taken to address the reported issue, says Rosenthal.

"Employers cannot retaliate against those who have the courage to use the hotline," he says. "Victims of harassment will come forward and use the hotline if there is a culture in the organization [that] demonstrates a real commitment to providing a safe and secure workplace."

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Maintaining an effective harassment reporting procedure is "simple, but not always easy," says Aaron Goldstein, a Seattle-based partner in the labor and employment department at Dorsey & Whitney.

Like Rosenthal, Goldstein stresses the importance of immediately investigating all complaints and taking swift remedial measures where there is evidence of harassment.

Goldstein also recommends conducting mandatory anti-harassment training, and obliging employees to acknowledge in writing that they have received and reviewed the organization's anti-harassment policies, which should contain the harassment reporting procedure.

"Training takes time and money," he says, "but it gets the word out and demonstrates the company's commitment to its anti-harassment policies."

A solid reporting procedure can also prove to be part of a legal defense to a harassment claim, adds Goldstein.

"Employers can avoid liability if they have an effective reporting procedure, which the accusing employee failed to utilize," he says. Courts look at the same issues when assessing this defense: Does the company have a robust anti-harassment policy? How has the company handled prior complaints? What steps has the company taken to inform employees about its anti-harassment policy and reporting procedure?"

A harassment hotline, says Goldstein, "is meaningless if a company has a history of ignoring complaints or has failed to inform employees about it."

Ultimately, such hotlines are "really just one tool in an anti-harassment toolbox," he says. "Employers should train employees to recognize and report harassment in the workplace, swiftly investigate and respond to complaints, and make sure that employees know how to report harassment."

Without these other pieces in place, says Goldstein, "an anti-harassment hotline is just a dial-in circular file."

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