(Update, 9/6: It was announced this morning that Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, has settled the lawsuit with Gretchen Carlson for a reported $20 million. More details about the settlement could be forthcoming.)
Roger Ailes, former President of Fox News, resigned from his position in the wake of sexual harassment claims by numerous women who worked for the company. Andrea Tantaros, a former host with the network, laid out in a scathing $50 million lawsuit filed yesterday the plethora of times that Ailes and other men, including Bill O’Reilly, sexually exploited the women working there. She alleges multiple occasions in which Ailes groped her, made forward comments, and that he turned the station into a “Playboy Mansion-like cult.”
It’s something that unfortunately isn’t new, but given the laws that have been enacted in the last few decades, Tantaros and women like her have the power to fight back against harassment. While it can be a long and drawn out process, there are many options that someone who has been harassed can take in order to be justly compensated for another’s gross actions. But harassment of a sexual nature is not the only grounds for a lawsuit against a workplace.
what isn’t allowed at work?
This should be fairly obvious to most people, and a lot of it is. But there are still some things that co-workers may view as innocent but would actually qualify as harassment. For harassment to be deemed illegal, the action must have been intimidating, offensive or hostile to reasonable people. Those actions with sinister intentions in which harassment is deemed to have occurred is spelled out by the Department of Labor:
- Quid pro quo – This is when someone’s employment is contingent on their acceptance of unwanted advances. If a supervisor denies a promotion unless the employee is “sexually cooperative,” or if one employee is favored over another, then it’s considered sexual harassment.
- Hostile work environment – Unlike quid pro quo, this type of harassment can come from anyone no matter the rank in the company, and involve a variety of different actions. Using crude language, telling frequent inappropriate jokes, and discussing sexual activites are all things that would create a hostile environment. No one should be afraid to go to work.
- Conduct which violates the law – There are two factors here which must occur for an action by a coworker to fall into this category. One, it must be unwelcome and based on the victim’s protected status (more on what qualifies an employee as such in a minute). Two, the conduct must be: subjectively abusive, and objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that any reasonable person would find hostile or offensive.
Now, literally everyone is in a protected class one way or another. While the law was created to specifically prevent mistreatment of women and people of color, everyone is afforded the same protections. Harassment based on someone’s gender, race, religion or national origin is in violation of this law.
What to do if you’ve been harassed at work
Every employer is required to say in detail its policy on harassment. We all had to sit through a seminar, sign paperwork at the start of our employment, or some combination of the two. It’s a matter that is taken very seriously these days, and most employers won’t allow it to happen; and none of them want to be a defendant in a lawsuit.
You can obviously sue the harasser or the company as a whole if you believe that those high up within the company knew about the behavior and yet did nothing to stop it. There are certain things you have to do if you wish to go that route, but there are other means by which you can try to solve the problem if you don’t want to take it to court.
You could always try talking to the person who has been harassing you. As previously mentioned, sometimes that person will be truly oblivious in terms of the effect their actions have on their co-worker. One bit of advice here is to record this conversation somehow, which is allowed under the one party consent law. Tantaros’ lawsuit has already devolved into “he said, she said” accusations and denials, so having concrete evidence just in case it’s necessary would be a big help.
If that doesn’t work, lodging a complaint with the company would be the next step, the procedures for which are likely detailed in your employee handbook. This gives the company the opportunity to conduct an internal investigation, speak with the offender and make appropriate disciplinary decisions if necessary. They will want to remedy the situation in order to avoid a lawsuit. However, this is what Tantaros did, and according to her lawsuit, she was told, “to let this one go.” If your claims are dismissed or you feel they are victim-blaming, you would file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
EEOC Complaints and lawsuits
Filing a charge of discrimination or harassment with the EEOC involves a lot of paperwork, but if you aren’t satisfied with your company’s response, it’s the next course of action. It’s a good idea to file this complaint within 180 days of when the harassment occurred, and it can be filed at an EEOC office, a list and locations of which can be found on their website. For the complaint itself, there is a lot of necessary information to gather.
Harassment or discrimination rarely takes place in one event; they’re usually subtle and systematic actions that take place over an extended period of time, and tend to get worse as employment continues. The EEOC recommends you keep a journal of sorts, detailing time, place and action of the offender. If harassment occurs over email, text or voicemail, keep them just in case lodging any sort of complaint or lawsuit becomes necessary.
While rare, it is possible that a company will attempt to keep your complaints in the dark by retaliating against you. This is extremely illegal, but the burden of proof lies with the complainer. While the Supreme Court loosened their definition of retaliation, you must be able to prove that the retaliation was specifically related to the complaint that was filed.
A lawsuit is the last step one takes in this process, and filing one does not mean that problems will be resolved quickly. Depending on the size of the company, a lawsuit may take months before a verdict or settlement is reached. A behemoth media company such as Fox News will have an entire team of lawyers, whose job in the event of a trial would likely be to tarnish the reputation of Tantaros and/or exhaust all of her expenses on legal fees. However, a lawsuit only happens if the EEOC fails to act on your complaint within 180 days of receiving it.
In this case, you would request a right-to-sue letter, and the actual lawsuit would need to be filed within 90 days of that request being fulfilled. It should be noted that unless you and your company are of a high-profile nature such as Tantaros and Fox News, the EEOC probably won’t file a suit on your behalf, so you would need to hire a lawyer. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeking justice, if for nothing else than to ensure that it doesn’t happen to other women who may end up working for the company.
*Featured image from Leon israel, via Wiki Commons