Facing its second high-profile sexual harassment scandal in as many years, Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox is turning to third-party legal assistance — which could put top host Bill O’Reilly in the hot seat.
Law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the same practice whose investigation was instrumental in the departure of Fox News head Roger Ailes last summer, has been asked by 21st Century Fox to investigate complaints against “O’Reilly Factor” host.
Human resources and workplace harassment law experts said employing a third party, especially a law firm, in the midst of a crisis sends a strong message.
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“[Ailes] did step down and there was a large settlement. It may indicate that they do have the trust of both sides,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“Fox has an opportunity, if they manage this correctly, that they can actually build a stronger, healthier organization,” said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB.
But representatives for both the network and O’Reilly sought to downplay the firm’s involvement. “21st Century Fox investigates all complaints,” a Fox spokesperson said in a statement.
In a statement to NBC News, O’Reilly representative Mark Fabiani said there was “nothing special” about the firm’s involvement, saying, “Paul Weiss is already retained by the company to look into all hotline calls, so it’s inaccurate to say that Paul Weiss has been brought in specifically for this matter.”
In terms of both HR and PR, the participation of an outside law firm can be significant, said Sahar F. Aziz, a professor of law at Texas A&M University.
“The publicity is probably a trigger for Fox to let people know it’s taking the complaint seriously,” she said.
The stakes are high, with more than two dozen advertisers pulling their commercials from O’Reilly’s show since news of the scandal broke. “The last thing they would want it to be viewed as being flippant or dismissive about the issue. They want to show that they invested the time and money to do this seriously,” Aziz said.
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Experts say having the backing of a third party could give the network better justification if it sought to remove the embattled host.
“Having an external expert come in sometimes allows a company to make some hard decisions that might be internally, politically harder,” said Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program and president-elect at the National Women’s Law Center. “It may take a little bit of heat off of leadership in terms of their ability to make a tough decision.”
Aziz said a decision to look outside the company for help during a scandal was not unusual. “Some firms will use their internal HR department if they have the capability to do so; however, even if they do have those capabilities, it can be tainted by the appearance of a conflict of interest if the findings turn out to be in favor of the company’s position,” she said.
“The advantage of having a third party do it is it helps to create a belief that the process is fair,” Kropp said. “The rub about it is.. .the third party can’t just be perceived as agents of whoever’s involved.”
This is a risk, said Jerry Carbo, professor of management and marketing at Shippensburg University. “[The corporation] is their client so they have this natural inclination, and maybe duty, to protect their client,” he said. “I have seen that occur.”
For Fox, even an appearance of wielding influence over the law firm’s investigation could hurt its ability to attract and retain talent, to say nothing of the ongoing advertising fallout O’Reilly’s show faces. “Employees need to know that it’s fair, that all employees are treated equally,” Kropp said. “The worst thing you and do is bring in a third party and not be transparent.”