Is it possible Bill O’Reilly didn’t know the general boundaries of proper, lawful behavior in today’s workplaces? Was this highly educated, Harvard-degreed commentator unaware that continuing to make unwelcome advances, threatening to retaliate against those reporting them or following through could cost him his job and lots of money? Could O’Reilly have failed to watch Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing when Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment captivated the Senate and our nation? Did no one brief him on changes to The Civil Rights Act which allowed juries to hear those cases and provided for punitive and compensatory damages?
Did O’Reilly miss President Clinton’s impeachment, or what happened to prominent leaders in the House of Representatives, Hewlett Packard, and in other organizations, including in his own industry, which resulted in their suffering major career setbacks? Did he skip or just zone out when his employer issued policies and delivered compliance training, indicating that legal standards applied to everyone, including top leaders and performers? Did Bill O’Reilly fail to understand that a 9-million-dollar settlement he paid to a former employee in 2004 could lead to more claims and publicity?
As for me, I’m sure he was aware of everything listed. So then, what didn’t he get? Actually, what he didn’t get isn’t the issue. The problem is what he wasn’t given. Simply stated, his employer’s most powerful leaders didn’t give him a clear, direct message stating he needed to behave– like everyone else– or face consequences like everyone else. Instead, he got a symbolic or actual wink and a nod, which let O’Reilly, and at least some others at Fox, know they could do what they wanted. Apparently, the message he and other “big shots” or super harassers, as the EEOC refers to them, got was this: “Do what you want—we’ll cover for you. Keep producing. That’s all that matters.” Left unsaid was: “That’s all that matters, that is, until it gets too costly in terms of settlements, horrific PR, or lost sponsorships; then, we’ll part company.”
There’s a prescriptive remedy for organizations who have leaders and producers who may feel exempted from their employer’s stated standards. The most senior leaders need to deliver this simple message: “Our standards apply to everyone– all of us. It’s part of our culture, our values, and who we are. Follow them if you want to work here.” And finally, these messages need to be repeated and credible. Credibility doesn’t come from words but rather from real corrective actions. That’s what big shots need for them to “get the message.”