Second lawsuit against Roger Ailes and Fox News shows the perils of ignoring workplace harassment

By Tina Irgang

This week, former Fox News anchor Andrea Tartaros filed a lawsuit that accuses former CEO Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her, and charges that her career suffered after she rebuffed his advances. Ailes — the mastermind behind the channel’s rise — resigned in July, following another lawsuit that triggered an internal investigation. How did things go so wrong at Fox News?

The Tartaros suit alleges that Ailes’ “actions were condoned by his most senior lieutenants, who engaged in a concerted effort to silence Tantaros by threats, humiliation and retaliation,” according to The Wall Street Journal. What’s more, the suit doesn’t just name Ailes as a defendant, but also William Shine, who was recently promoted to co-president at Fox News — showing that even Ailes’ departure isn’t likely to extricate his former employer from scandal any time soon.

Ailes has denied all allegations of harassment, but those allegations have been piling up. In 2014, a biography of Ailes included interviews with four women who said they had been harassed, according to New York Magazine. However, the issue erupted into the national consciousness this past July, when former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed suit against Ailes. Within days, more than a dozen women contacted Carlson’s attorney with “detailed allegations of sexual harassment” dating back to the 1960s, New York Magazine says.

Could it happen at your company?

Even with Ailes gone, Fox News seems poisoned to spend large sums on legal costs and other damage control related to both the Tartaros and Carlson suits. Considering the tremendous damage to a company’s reputation when sexual harassment becomes public, you want to be sure it doesn’t happen to you. With that in mind, here are some ways to uncover and disrupt patterns of harassment in your organization:

  • Don’t dismiss “the small stuff.” “Much harassment is subtle and rides the line of appropriate behavior,” notes SmartCEO columnist Bonnie Low-Kramen. Are employees telling jokes at the expense of the other sex? Are they making suggestive comments or giving unsolicited compliments about a colleague’s appearance? It’s a sign that some members of your team may be getting too relaxed about boundaries in the workplace, says IT World. A refresher training on those boundaries is probably in order.
  • Make whistleblowers feel safe. You should have a written policy covering employees’ ability to share any concerns with their supervisor or with HR, but that’s not all. Fast Company suggests setting up regular one-on-one meetings between supervisors and employees, and making it clear that these meetings are a good time to discuss anything employees perceive as problematic. Also make sure you personally talk to employees whenever possible, to show that the prospect of approaching you with a potentially unpleasant conversation doesn’t have to be scary, Fast Company adds.
  • Dig deep in exit interviews. If you have a lot of turnover, particularly among employees who had been performing well, harassment could be to blame, says i-Sight. Ask departing employees whether they have any concerns to share about your company’s atmosphere and culture.
  • Act quickly and thoroughly to investigate complaints. As you proceed, consider this detailed outline from the American Bar Association on how to conduct investigations of harassment.

While discussions about harassment are likely to be difficult in the short term, the headlines now surrounding Roger Ailes and Fox News show that it’s in your company’s best interest to watch closely and investigate thoroughly.

Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO magazine and SmartCEO.com. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.