The recent revelation that 21st Century Fox has spent about $13 million to settle complaints from women involving sexual harassment or other allegations of inappropriate behavior by host Bill O’Reilly caused several key advertisers to pull out of his nightly show and his subsequent firing. While this, of course, made headline news another related revelation has companies looking at the effectiveness of their anti-harassment workplace policies including the use of an anonymous hotline. Mr. O’Reilly in his defense pointed out that not one employee used the broadcasting company’s anonymous hotline to make a complaint against him.
In looking at why employees didn’t use the hotline made available to them, several employment law experts say that a company’s hotline often exists in obscurity, and that even when it is well known among employees, it can be perceived or indeed used as a tool for suppressing harassment allegations rather than dealing with them.
One lawyer specializing in allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination said it is “very common for companies to bury information about how employees can file confidential complaints and for employees to be completely unaware of the existence of hotlines.” She also said that many companies also neglect to mention the hotlines in training sessions.
Indeed several former Fox News staff members said they did not know about the company hotline and had not been told about one, even in sessions about sexual harassment. However, a spokesman for 21st Century Fox said the hotline had existed at the company since 2004. The spokesman also said that employees are required to certify annually that they understand the company’s standards of conduct, which they do by responding to questions as they make their way through the material online, and that the material includes information about the hotline. Moreover, since last September, the company has highlighted the hotline during sessions about harassment, which have also become more formal and systematic.
A commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cites that 70% of employees who have experienced harassment do not report it to their employer, typically because they fear retaliation or indifference. Those that do report incidents tend to do so because they feel the company is going to handle complaints fairly and responsibly, whether or not the hotline is anonymous.
Sexual Harassment Prevention in the Workplace
There are certain best practices all companies – large or small – should follow to prevent sexual harassment at work and when an incident is reported to take the appropriate steps, including:
- Training. This can’t be stressed enough – be sure that all employees, from managers down to the newest hourly worker, know what sexual harassment is and that it is not tolerated. Regular training sessions are best, but at the very least every business should have a carefully drafted policy that every employee and new hire must read and understand.
- Respond to complaints appropriately. Have a process in place by which employees can express their concerns confidentially, without having to involve the alleged harasser in the chain of reporting. Treat every concern seriously. In some cases, complaints can be resolved with a staff meeting to go over the rules of workplace etiquette. Other problems may require more formal investigation, assistance of outside counsel, and discipline.
If there is a hotline set up it should be in accordance with best practices, by giving employees access to a third-party organization specially equipped to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination issues in the workplace. Employees who have been the victim of unethical behavior should have access to the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The employees are able to maintain their anonymity if they wish, and the hotline handles the information in a confidential manner. After the employee reports the issue, the hotline personnel should immediately begin to process the complaint, which typically should take 24 hours or less. The hotline employees, who are specially trained in complaint handling, prepare a report that is immediately forwarded to the appropriate company representative who is responsible for putting the wheels of the company’s investigative process in motion.
- Avoid or manage harassment situations that could get out of hand. The best way to handle complaints about harassment in the workplace is to not have any because your workforce knows how to behave. Be sure all employees are given guidelines on workplace ethics. Keep an eye out for actions that just brush the line between “okay” and “not okay” and put a stop to them before they escalate.
Ensure that the organization’s Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) program will respond to allegations of harassment and other employment-related practices. RPS provides EPLI solutions to a broad range of businesses and can assist in securing insurance for clients.