It's very likely that you've heard about the recent problems at Fox News with claims of sexual harassment. This seemed to reach a peak late last month when Bill O'Reilly, the network's main draw, was pushed out after allegations surfaced that the company had paid nearly $13 million to settle claims against him.
One of the defenses raised by O'Reilly was that no employee had ever used the company's anonymous hotline to complain about him. For those who don't know, these hotlines are often put in place by large companies to "encourage" employees to make anonymous complaints about workplace harassment, discrimination, or unfair conduct.
According to a recent article, however, many employees of Fox News were completely unaware of the existence of the hotline. They claim that the company did not encourage employee complaints of this nature, and that there were no posters or signs pointing to a number to call if you had trouble. Even if they had such signs, however, given the alleged culture it seems unlikely that the hotline would have been used.
Our experience is that employees in companies with patterns of harassment are generally afraid to use the "anonymous" hotline. They often do not feel that their complaints of harassment or discrimination will be taken seriously. They tend to believe - often correctly, in our opinion - that companies simply make the hotline available as a way to insulate themselves from liability in the event of a complaint of discrimination. The feeling in these situations is that the company simply wants another way to say that the employee did not follow the proper protocol in making a complaint.
Employees of companies with hotlines also often feel that despite their label of "anonymous", the hotlines are not. They express concern that if they make a complaint it will immediately get back to their supervisor, who will then retaliate against them. This was one of the allegations in the Sterling jeweler case that we discussed several months back.
Employees who work for companies with anonymous tip lines should do what they can to make themselves aware of their existence, and the need to initiate a complaint through the hotline. It is very likely that their company handbook requires that they make complaints of harassment through, among other things, the hotline, and the failure to do so can give the company a defense in the event that a lawsuit is brought. The employee would be well served to also consider making a written complaint to Human Resources, as this would provide actual proof of the complaint and possibly gain some level of protection for the employee.
If you have concerns about harassment or discrimination in the workplace give us a call today.