Fox News Turmoil Highlights Workplace Culture's Role In Sexual Harassment Fox News is among many workplaces dealing with sexual harassment issues. Experts say changing the culture at work requires training, establishing reporting mechanisms, and consistent enforcement.

Fox News Turmoil Highlights Workplace Culture's Role In Sexual Harassment

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Fox News is hardly the only company dealing with sexual harassment issues. Uber has hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate allegations made by a former employee that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem at that company. And similar claims have been made by employees at Sterling Jewelers, owner of the Kay, Jared and Zales chains. Sterling's parent company says those claims have no merit.

Still, what's the right way for an organization to respond to accusations that it has a deeply ingrained culture that permits sexual harassment? NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: During his career in human resources, Jeff Owens has handled a number of sexual harassment cases. He says outcomes vary depending how incidents are handled. For example, one health care firm he worked for in Fort Smith, Ark., two decades ago decided to settle a sexual harassment allegation brought against an executive.

JEFF OWENS: The thought was this has been resolved and we're covering up and we're moving on.

NOGUCHI: But that settlement emboldened the executive, says Owens, who now works for Tulsa Community College.

OWENS: That provided a level of arrogance to that person because they felt like the organization was protecting them because they held a strong position or had greater value.

NOGUCHI: Six months later, after a second complaint came in, the same executive was fired. Owens says the termination had a very different effect on the victim, and in short order, the company's culture.

OWENS: She in turn feels empowered that that organization's going to protect her.

NOGUCHI: Experts say deeply ingrained cultural problems of sexual harassment can be addressed but that it requires demonstrated commitment from on high.

OWENS: As the CEO goes, (laughter) so goes the culture.

NOGUCHI: It also requires a good policy education, and training and consistent enforcement, even if it involves a powerful or popular employee. In short, it can be a deeply painful and embarrassing experience as one Connecticut boarding school is finding out.

Last week, officials at Choate Rosemary Hall released a devastating report it commissioned. It details five decades of sexual abuse at the hands of a dozen teachers. Cheyenne Montgomery, one of the school's victims in the 1990s, says she pushed for the report because she felt the school needed to face its demons.

CHEYENNE MONTGOMERY: I think this is going to make Choate a better place.

NOGUCHI: The report supports Montgomery's story that two teachers befriended, mentored then sexually preyed on her. It also detailed a 1999 rape by a teacher witnessed by students on an overseas trip, and more generally, how teachers lured students into their homes or off campus to take advantage of them.

Until 2010, offending teachers weren't reported to law enforcement. Many were, in fact, given recommendations to teach elsewhere. As the Catholic Church did and as Penn State's football coaches did, Choate chose to remain silent again and again.

MONTGOMERY: Pushing things under the rug and not talking about it and not acknowledging of it and really taking care of the perpetrators and not the students.

NOGUCHI: Montgomery, whose experiences haunt her every day, says the abusers use their own reputations as shields.

MONTGOMERY: It seems like they have this, like, charismatic draw, like a lot of them are really, you know, were popular teachers.

NOGUCHI: Standing up to that culture can feel very uncomfortable, as Danna Hewick is discovered as a young HR manager 15 years ago. At the Washington, D.C., area construction firm, she got comments like...

DANNA HEWICK: Oh, baby, you're looking good.

NOGUCHI: ...Or...

HEWICK: Sweetheart, just, you know, go sit over there and, you know, you don't need to speak up.

NOGUCHI: Hewick wrote a new policy and introduced annual harassment training and detailed the consequences of noncompliance. She says it was critical to include confidential reporting so more victims might come forward. Still, she says...

HEWICK: It took letting go some key people that were the worst offenders that didn't want to abide by our new policy and thought we were just joking.

NOGUCHI: She says once the company stopped tolerating harassment, other positive changes followed.

HEWICK: I think that was the start of OK, well, if this wasn't the right way for this company to behave, what else do we need to look at?

NOGUCHI: Over time, Hewick says, she saw the culture become more open and communicative. And people were held accountable for their actions. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.


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