Workplace hotlines in the era of Fox News

by Laura Simmons

SafeAlert

Based on recent news reports, the atmosphere at Fox News was rife with sexual harassment and innuendo. Many female employees and prospective employees have made allegations against Fox News detailing the conduct they endured at the hands of top executives and on-air talent. They claim that their refusal to "play along" in the sexual banter resulted in the company taking actions detrimental to their careers; in some cases, transfers to less desirable positions, terminations, and refusals to hire. It is estimated that over $35 million has been paid out in settlements based on these allegations. As a result, CEO Roger Ailes resigned and on-air talent, Bill O’Reilly, was fired.

While Fox News maintained a hotline for employees to call and report sexual harassment and other issues, none of the women used this resource. In fact, many claim that they did not know it existed. Ultimately, Attorney Lisa Bloom, who represents alleged victim Wendy Walsh, found mention of the hotline in Fox News’ employee handbook, made a phone call to the hotline and then posted it on the Internet. This call spurred a formal investigation at Fox News, but only after the toxic environment had existed for years and millions of dollars had been paid out in settlements.

Why would a company pay to provide a hotline and not publicize it to its employees? 
Also, if they knew about it, why wouldn’t employees use this resource? Most employers are very aware of the need to have policies expressing zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination. Providing a hotline that allows employees to make complaints, anonymously if necessary, is another way for employers to demonstrate their commitment to this issue.

For a hotline to be effective, employees must know about it and trust the process.
Employers should:

  • include the hotline in their handbooks
  • post the hotline in visible locations in the workplace
  • periodically remind employees of the hotline in company meetings and training sessions 

If employees believe that their employer will attempt to find out who made the complaint, they will likely be fearful to use it. More importantly, if employees believe that complaints are futile because of the environment in the workplace and a lack of consequences for offenders, they are highly unlikely to waste their time with a hotline call.

While hotlines can be an effective tool for employers to provide to employees, if employers are not truly committed to a harassment free workplace, they add little value. Employers should:

  • have and enforce anti-harassment policies 
  • be vigilant about addressing harassing conduct in the workplace
  • have open door policies among their management teams so that employees can report issues

The addition of a hotline provides employees with an additional avenue to report issues, but standing alone, will do little to alleviate harassment. A cultural, internal commitment to maintaining a harassment free workplace is paramount. 

If you have Employment Practices Liability Insurance with ABA Insurance Services, log into HRRiskManager.com, powered by Littler, for more resources about managing hotlines or for more information related to employment practices.