Sexual harassment claims against Bill O’Reilly show nation’s much deeper epidemic

Originally published on The Huffington Post

By Linda Meric

We seem to be living in a nation where sexual harassment is simultaneously being condemned by some and condoned, or at least ignored and excused, by others. Look no further than the Access Hollywood tape of our head of state and the massive women’s protests that erupted immediately upon his inauguration. The bad news is that some leaders, who could be sending an important message of respect for all and a commitment to holding harassers accountable, are not. The good news is that many people are paying close attention and taking a stand.

Last week, Bill O’Reilly turned from a pundit into the subject, making national news for multiple accusations of sexual harassment against him, and because of his advertisers’ unprecedented boycott. These allegations first surfaced in 2004 and though it seemed to be common knowledge, O’Reilly remained relatively unscathed. Even after audio was released of him sexually harassing a Fox News producer saying he wanted to rub a “falafel” (meaning a loofah) on her ahem, lady parts, Fox News stood by their man and the story faded away with a neat settlement of $9 million.

While things aren’t so tidy this time around for O’Reilly, it remains to be seen if Fox News will take any action. And now the harasser-in-chief has defended O’Reilly, saying he’s a good guy and it’s okay if he broke the law. This sends a terrible message to all those who face sexual harassment and try to take steps in the workplace and through the legal system to get it to stop.

Already, far too many cases go unreported and unpunished. An astonishing number of people, particularly women, have faced sexual harassment on the job. The EEOC has reported that 60% of women have faced sexual harassment on the job but 70% of these cases go unreported. Fast food workers, women in tech and finance, hospitality workers, truckers, and women in nearly every industry you can think of have reported cases of sexual harassment. This is an epidemic.

Sadly, this often leaves a lasting impact on those affected. Maureen from Louisiana was repeatedly sexually harassed on the job, which created economic instability for her family, as the sole financial provider. “As someone with two degrees in criminal justice, I was appalled at how my court cases involving sexual harassment were handled. Rather than getting the justice I deserved, I was called the ‘harasser’ and my actual harassers got off scot-free,” Maureen explained. She faced sexual harassment from other bosses as well, so she couldn’t stay long at any one job, forcing her family into bankruptcy and eventually homelessness. She continued, “Unfortunately, my situation isn’t rare but it should be! That’s why I continue to speak out. Yes, I’ve struggled, but I am happy knowing that I can share my story to support others facing situations like mine and to bring us closer to ending sexual harassment.”

So what can you do if you experience or witness sexually harassing conduct in the workplace?

If you experience sexual harassment on the job, remember that you’re not alone. Trust your instincts, and don’t blame yourself. Be assertive and say no clearly. Document every incident in detail. Look for witnesses and other evidence from co-workers or former employees. Research your employer’s and your union’s channels for reporting sexual harassment, and use them. As Maureen found out, addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is difficult, so seek emotional support.

If these steps don’t work, take legal action. Federal law – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and many state laws prohibit sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting it. These laws hold employers accountable for what goes on in their companies and what they do or don’t do about the problem.

If you are not the one being harassed, support your co-workers by validating that harassment is wrong, affirming their feelings, and listening without judgment. Be sure that your behavior isn’t part of the problem. Challenge the harasser’s inappropriate behavior. Work with others toward a harassment-free work environment, whether that harassment is sexual in nature or based on someone’s race, sexual orientation or other characteristics.

If you’re a manager, you have special responsibilities. You also have special opportunities to be part of the solution. Be a role model. Be a good listener. Be objective and consistent. Be informed, and be willing to ask for help when you need it. Be vigilant, and don’t wait for a crisis.

Employers can develop, update and uniformly implement policies to stop and prevent sexual harassment. And they should, because having strong policies and procedures in place that hold everyone accountable, regardless of their position in the company, can help businesses stop harassment and defend themselves when an incident occurs. Emphasize prevention through education and training. Clearly define procedures, give several options for reporting, and be sure that investigations are prompt and fair. Administer appropriate discipline, regardless of the position of the harasser.

There’s a role for all of us in stopping and preventing sexual harassment. Let’s each do our part. And let’s continue to call on Bill O’Reilly’s advertisers to stop funding his program, and his bosses at Fox News to give him the ax.

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