Yesterday morning, I wrote a short blog concluding that Fox News would likely face long-term reputational damage if it allowed Bill O’Reilly to continue hosting The O’Reilly Factor. Before I could post it, Fox announced the end of O’Reilly’s twenty-year career with the network. As a broadcast superstar, Bill O’Reilly will be remembered for his persona, opinions, stellar ratings and now the acts, allegations, and settlements that caused his departure. What are the lessons here? Three come to mind.
First, the risks associated with bad workplace behavior include career devastation and business damage. The key word here is business. How a leader or prominent performer acts – no matter who they are– can have business consequences that threaten enterprise viability. While their skills or economic value can insulate them from harm in many organizations, ultimately, the more prominent or valued these “big shots” are, the more vulnerable they and their employer are to a public and painful fall. With the quick loss of its advertisers for O’Reilly’s show and the slew of negative publicity their own workplace has generated, Fox’s leaders apparently got the message.
Second, Fox’s inaction worsened this situation. While the New York Times’ April 1 investigative story triggered the events that led to O’Reilly’s dismissal, most of the facts had been known to Fox’s top executives much earlier. As media leaders, they must have known how hard it is to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive information. Yet, they apparently relied on the risky defense of “let’s keep this all quiet and eventually it will blow over.” When this frequently-used tactic fails, the damage can be worse than if the underlying behavior of a powerful leader or producer had been addressed and corrected. I’ll bet many employers will read the O’Reilly story and continue to ignore their own risks. Rather than acting, they’ll conclude as Fox must have, that “it can’t happen here.” Until it does.
Finally, Fox is not out of the woods. The publicity involving the harassment-linked departures of former Chairman Roger Ailes and now O’Reilly means that Fox’s practices will continue to be closely scrutinized and newsworthy. Fox’s visibility and past history assure that. Fox’s values speak of respect and tolerance, it has anti-harassment policies, employs human resource professionals– including legal counsel– and operates a hotline. I’ll assume Fox has checked all the compliance training boxes. These important steps are not enough. Now Fox will need its most senior leadership to discuss and enforce its standards to prove its commitments are real rather than cosmetic. The elements of the EEOC’s 2016 Workplace Harassment study will give Fox’s leaders a guide for what needs to be done. If the Study’s recommendations, particularly regarding senior leader accountability, are ignored, Fox will continue to generate news regarding its workplace. I’m guessing they’d rather cover the news than make it as they have in recent weeks.