You’ve come a long way baby?
What Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit tells us about the state of sexual harassment in the workplace
Earlier this month, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against CEO Roger Ailes, alleging that her contract was not renewed because she refused Ailes’ sexual advances.
Carlson also alleged that the harassment she endured was severe and “very pervasive,” that Ailes repeatedly “injected sexual and/or sexist comments” into conversations and made “sexual advances.”
Finally, when she told him last fall to stop, a preventive measure women are often urged to take, Ailes is alleged to have responded, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.”
Carlson’s lawsuit contains the following additional allegations:
• Ailes often ogled her in his office and asked her to turn around so he could view her posterior and repeatedly commented about her legs.
• He made sexually charged comments about her appearance and made demands for sex in order for her to improve her position at the network.
• She tried to complain unsuccessfully about how male colleagues, including “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy treated her.
• Doocy “engaged in a practice of severe and pervasive sexual harassment of Carlson, including, but not limited to, mocking her between commercial breaks, shunning her off air, refusing to engage with her on air, belittling her contributions to the show, and generally attempting to put her in her place by refusing to accept and treat her as an intelligent and insightful journalist rather than a blond female prop.”
• Following her complaint about Doocy in 2009, she was removed from the morning “Fox & Friends” and relegated to a less desirable 2 p.m. time slot. At that time, Ailes referred to her as a “man hater” and told her to “get along with the boys.” She was also removed from her weekly appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
This is not a story from the 1970’s, and it comes on the heels of a June 2016 report issued by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force that concluded that workplace sexual harassment training initiatives are often ineffective in stopping misconduct.
“Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool,” the EEOC commissioners wrote, adding that “ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive.” The clear message of the report is that the most common trainings are designed to minimize legal risk to companies rather than change behavior in supervisors or employees.
Carlson is not a young innocent ingénue. She is a 50-year-old professional woman, a graduate of Stanford University and someone who has reached a coveted spot in her chosen field by hosting a program on a national news network. Even though she is constantly referred to in the media as a former Miss America, she has done quite a few things with her life since.
It is interesting to note that Carlson took the unorthodox step of suing Ailes directly, but not the network, her employer. The company itself launched an investigation of Carlson’s allegations, something apparently not done at the time her initial complaints of discrimination were lodged against Doocy – not a good fact for Fox News.
The network’s behavior in response to the allegations will be closely watched, and failing to take strong action if the claims are found to have merit could be very harmful to its reputation and credibility.
Every business knows that taking adverse action against a CEO, a high-producing employee or a strong charismatic leader is among the most difficult things for a company to do. It is also among the most important because these individuals are viewed as leaders.
If leaders cannot be trusted to do the right thing, employees will never feel as though they can safely report discrimination and harassment, and human behavior will not change. Fox has the ability in this case to send a clear message, and the world will be watching.
What do Carlson’s suit and the EEOC’s report tell us about today’s workplace for women? Maybe that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had.
Assuming Carlson’s allegations to be true, and it should be noted that they are currently being vigorously disputed, it signals the need for careful reexamination of workplace culture, expectations and action.
Those of us who devote a large percentage of our professional work lives to risk management and training, need to take the initiative to develop programs which will help to shift workplace culture and truly influence the way people treat each other.
Perhaps even more important, employers must not only invest in training, they must “walk the walk.” Employees need to feel that they can trust management to act when they report that bad things happen to them, rather than to stand in fear of retaliation. Supervisors who protect employees who breach policy need to be held accountable for what they are doing (or not doing).
Charla Bizios Stevens, director in the Litigation Department and chair of the Employment Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Middleton, can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at @charlastevens.