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Lessons From the Bill O'Reilly Sex Harassment Scandal

Recently, Bill O’Reilly’s firing from Fox News apparently due to the multiple sexual harassment claims brought against him, has been all over the news. O’Reilly is a powerful person, whose employer seems to have settled numerous claims silently on his behalf over the years. In response to the latest complaints, O’Reilly released a statement trumpeting the fact that: “In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.” Each claim that was settled by Fox News on his behalf presumably involved a non-disclosure agreement, preventing O’Reilly’s accusers/victims from speaking publicly about their experience, and preventing the facts from being openly litigated in court.

What can victims of workplace sexual harassment learn from the O’Reilly news? O’Reilly’s situation underscores the fact that workplace sexual harassment continues to occur across the United States, including in New York, but often it goes unreported. 

Sexual harassment can occur in many forms.  For example, it can be quid pro quo; numerous instances spanning over a period of time; or one significant event. When sex harassment happens at or in connection with work, an employer may be liable.   When an employee files a sexual harassment complaint in court, or at a federal, state, or city agency, the employer will check to see if the employee first reported the harassment internally to Human Resources (“HR”). Employers can and do use the fact that they have set up a harassment reporting hotline or have a robust anti-harassment training program as defenses in court.  Therefore, lodging an internal complaint may be the first line of defense, for employers, and for employees who report harassment to HR.

Why, then, don’t the employees who are sexually harassed file complaints with Human Resources when not doing so might harm their case? There are a number of reasons.  Employees usually are not thinking about the harassment in terms of the legal repercussions, they are just trying to do their job without being harassed. Employees may be concerned that HR will not keep their complaint secret––after all, HR owes a duty to the employer not to the employees.  They may fear they will be retaliated against by their harasser or someone else in their workplace––particularly if their harasser is their supervisor.   Employees may not know who to contact at HR or how to properly lodge a complaint.  A company may not have an HR office or someone who the employee can comfortably communicate with about the harassment, as is the case in many small and medium sized businesses.   Some employees may think that their complaints will not be listened to or investigated, as was the case for Susan Fowler, an Uber engineer whose blog post on her extensive harassment at work and complaints to HR went viral earlier this year.  And sometimes, in response to an investigation, a victim and the accused may be put on leave pending an internal investigation, while rumors swirl at work and the victim’s professional reputation is marred.  

If you are being sexually harassed at work, but are afraid to report the harassment to HR, consult an attorney, even if you still are working.  As the O’Reilly situation illustrates, there are many ways that employers can deal with harassment, but most situations are resolved privately, not in the courtroom. The attorneys at Berke-Weiss Law PLLC can help employees navigate a hostile work environment or file an internal complaint; advocate and negotiate directly with the employer to make the work environment safer for the victim and prevent retaliation or for a smooth transition out of the workplace; or file a complaint on your behalf with city, state, and/or federal agencies, and the court. 

For more information about your rights under federal, state, and city laws, you can visit: