Recently the case of Gretchen Carlson, a terminated Fox News Anchorwoman, produced a firestorm of media coverage when she filed a lawsuit in New Jersey alleging that her boss, now deposed Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, sexually harassed her on numerous occasions. Mr. Carlson alleged, as in the case of many similar situations, that she was terminated by Fox News for rebuffing Mr. Ailes numerous inferred sexual demands, and that she also was compelled to tolerate his boorish comments of a sexual nature on a repetitive basis.
The publicity surrounding the Ailes controversy is instructive in several respects for responsible employers who absolutely dread having to weather a salacious charge of sexual harassment by one of its employees. First, it is critical that any employer enforces its published workplace harassment policies from the top down; meaning that zero tolerance not only applies to mid-level managers but to top-level executives as well. Second, if in the unfortunate case that allegations of sexual harassment are made against a high or “C” level executive, it is imperative, as in the situation which occurred in the Ailes complaint, that a thorough, complete and objective investigation be undertaken soon after such allegations surface.
In the Ailes case and in many that I have been involved in, it is best to have an objective third party conduct the investigation, such as the company’s employment counsel. In the Ailes case, Fox retained outside counsel to do the investigation which ultimately led to other women coming forward to claim that they had also been sexually harassed by Mr. Ailes. Shortly into the conduct of the investigation, Fox News made the difficult decision to end its relationship with Mr. Ailes, although according to various news reports Ailes’ feelings were somewhat assuaged by a reputed $40 million dollar severance package!
Again though, Fox obviously knew that it could not put Humpty Dumpty back together and made the difficult decision to compel Ailes’ resignation, even though he had produced billions of dollars of revenue over his decades-long tenure as the head of Fox News. Similarly, where allegations of sexual harassment are substantiated against a high-level executive, the targeted company must be prepared to make the difficult decision to cut its losses and perhaps lose the services of an impactful, yet damaged executive.
Even in today’s day and age when workplace harassment and specifically sexual harassment, have received extensive coverage in the media and in the courts, employers still need to grapple with this vexing problem. From a practical standpoint, employers can and should be proactive about: formulating and communicating thorough, comprehensive and understandable workplace harassment policies; publishing such policies not only in their handbooks and procedures manuals, but regularly –perhaps annually– communicating these policies to their rank and file and managerial employees; and finally regularly providing effective training (perhaps as an every other year occurrence) to all employees on the substance of its workplace harassment policies as well as the procedure by which complaints of workplace harassment may be processed without fear of retaliation or retribution.
Our Labor & Employment Department is well situated to provide guidance on the structuring of effective workplace harassment policies, and to arrange with any company to conduct effective and efficient workplace harassment training. For further information regarding any of the issues discussed above feel free to contact Howard Kurman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410.209.6417.
Learn more about Offit Kurman’s Workplace Investigation services here.
ABOUT HOWARD KURMAN
Howard K. Kurman is an employment attorney. Mr. Kurman regularly counsels clients on all aspects of proactive employment/labor issues. He represents employers ranging in size from as small as 20 employees to those employers with geographically disparate locations consisting of over 4,000 employees. Mr. Kurman assures, through regular contact with his clients, that they promulgate and maintain the most effective employment policies that will, to the extent possible, minimize their legal exposure in today’s litigious workplace. Mr. Kurman offers advice on employee handbooks, employment agreements, and covenants not to compete as well as confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. Previously, Mr. Kurman was the chair of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group.
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