observations and opinion
FOX News paid Bill O’Reilly millions in salary – and paid his alleged sexual harassment victims millions in settlement money – for many years. The only reason to do that, is because O’Reilly was profitable.
FOX News stopped paying O’Reilly when the revenue from his program fell below the level necessary to justify the expense of employing him. And that calculation may well include assessing the long term damage to the network’s reputation by continuing to have him around.
But it was all math.
I have no evidence Mr. O’Reilly did anything wrong. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he is a certifiable saint, cruelly misjudged. But he is believed to have done wrong, by so many people that a boycott by advertisers has diminished the profitability of his show. So he is gone, kicked out with a basket of dollars.
The question of the moral wrong, if there was “wrong” in O’Reilly’s conduct does not appear to have creased the consciousness of his employer. Now at least, until now. Given that Roger Ailes ran the network, one presumes the moral wrong element was not given significant weight. That’s my way of politely or obliquely noting Mr. Ailes’ own infamy in the sexual harassment sphere.
The truth is that organizations tolerate various degrees of bad behaviour, by their employees, if it is “worth it.” If the revenue and profit associated with an individual is such that his bad conduct produces only affordable problems, those problems will be afforded.
This is a classic risk-reward, cost-benefit analysis. The bully or harasser will have complete license to behave as he does, until one of two things happen: (1) his conduct triggers a complaint that costs more than his work is worth or (2) his work becomes less profitable, making his minor indiscretions now less rewarding to tolerate.
All of this points to a core truth about bad conduct: it is not “individual” conduct, it is organizational – the organization tolerates it, sometimes abets it, sometimes aids it and often profits by it. This is not about Bill O’Reilly or whatever tiny little workplace bully you are putting up with: it is about the organization they work(ed) in, which enabled it.
And to some extent it is about the members of the organization who turned a blind eye. When FOX News cut checks for $13 million to women with harassment complaints, it was because the company knew those complaints would cost FOX a lot MORE, if they weren’t settled. That means FOX News had a very good sense of just how bad the allegations were and just how good the evidence of those allegations would be, if revealed.
Which means FOX News’ management were well aware of “a problem” and treated it like a new sink in the company lunch room (or more accurately, as a new “perk” for Bill O’Reilly) – as an expense. Very likely hundreds of people at FOX News were perfectly well aware of “problematic” conduct and of how the organization treated it. Meaning that they all knew they lived and worked in an environment with no moral compass, or a bent one. And it also meant (means) that they knew their own conduct and misconduct, was measured against a ruler made up of dollar signs, and no other measure. Which means they too had a license, if they were profitable or powerful enough to pay for it.
How many organizations operate exactly like this? Too many. Probably most.
Not many organizations have a Bill O’Reilly. What they have is someone who is less notorious, less famous, less profitable and maybe less risky, because his behaviour is less aggressive and he’s not such a public target. Sexual harassment is a daily curse but less overt conduct – simple bullying – is a constant.
The typical workplace bully doesn’t grab someone by the pussy. He’s too much of a coward. Instead, he destroys others’ confidence. He is the kind who belittles, insults, shuns, marginalizes, lords over and humiliates underlings or the less powerful. He draws people into his web of bullying by using non-victims as witnesses (subtly bullying the non-victims too, and creating cover for himself).
We all know or have known someone like this. We have all shaken our heads, shrugged off or shuddered about their conduct. But what have we done about it? Probably not much. Unless we are directly injured or witness to something grievous, we tend to just keep our heads down and work, right?
Organizations do not induce or reward brave action about this problem. We aren’t asked to enforce decent conduct, we aren’t rewarded for it – indeed we are often punished.. The conflict and ugliness which results from calling out bad behaviour, is seldom worth it. If we approach the bully, what will we get? Probably ignored, maybe injured ourselves. After all, bullies are bullies because they have power; bullies are bullies because they feel safe; bullies are bullies because they are NOT listening to, and do NOT care about, others’ needs.
I do not have a magic pill which will make us all more brave, more decent, more kind. That’s not how it works. How it works is, we establish systems which promote good behaviour, which protect people from bad conduct, which punish and educate people who engage in bad conduct. We make sure those systems really operate and we place a high value on their success.
And we do not calculate whether decency is affordable or not. We don’t count the dollars. We just try to make it possible, for people to be a little more brave and a little less afraid. It really isn’t that complicated.
For a more extensive and impassioned discussion about this issue, you can visit my November 2014 piece about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, which discusses the organizational cowardice required to enable and reward serial abusers in the workplace.