Fox News debacle highlights issue of vicarious liability in sexual harassment cases

Nashville readers have probably heard by now of the departure of Roger Ailes from his role as Fox News Chairman and CEO following allegations of sexual harassment. Since Ailes’ departure from Fox, additional scrutiny has been leveled at Fox News over its commitment to preventing sexual harassment within its ranks.

One of the signs that Fox may not be committed to fighting sexual harassment include reports that Ailes was given $40 million in severance and an opportunity to serve as a consultant with the network. In addition, there are now allegations that at least one high level employee knew about the sexual harassment accusations before they became publicly known. That employee is accused of telling a former Fox New host to back off harassment and hostile workplace complaints. 

The story is interesting not only because of the network’s prominence, but also because of the challenges employees can face when seeking to protect their right to be free from sexual harassment. Employers are supposed to take allegations of sexual harassment seriously and follow their own internal processes for handling such matters. What happens when an employer fails to respond appropriately to sexual harassment allegations regarding one of its employees?

Employers can be held vicariously liable for the acts of supervisors who engage in sexual harassment, especially if the sexual harassment results in tangible adverse employment action. When it does not, employers may be able to avoid liability by asserting an affirmative defense. In our next post, we’ll look further at this issue, as well as the importance of working with an experienced attorney when seeking justice against an employer for sexual harassment.

Source: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors, June 1999. 

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