Storm Clouds at The Weather Channel

Rod Stephens
May 16, 2008 — 1,827 views  
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The Weather Channel is currently embroiled in litigation concerning the disclosure of the outcome of a sexual harassment and retaliation arbitration in which the arbitrator issued what one media outlet has described as a “blistering arbitration ruling in favor of a former anchorwoman...” Presently, The Weather Channel is attempting to keep the results of that arbitration cloaked in secrecy.

Here are the facts as I understand them:

The plaintiff (Hillary Andrews) went to work for The Weather Channel in 2003 and eventually was paired with a male anchor (Stokes). Andrews replaced another female who had reported sexual harassment by Stokes. According to Andrews, her predecessor suffered daily abuse by Stokes and would hide in her dressing room in between shifts to avoid Stokes. The predecessor was eventually let go after five (5) reports to management complaining of Stokes’ conduct. For a more detailed description of what Andrews and her predecessor endured click here.

Andrews alleged that Stokes was “sexually attracted to her and romantically obsessed with her.” Stokes would make crude sexualized comments such as, “Will you lick my swizzle stick?” In addition, he would grill her on her personal intimate life, including her sex life with her former husband. Stokes would ask “the same invasive questions about her sex life over and over again, non-stop. He would interrogate her for at least an hour during the three-hour time period between our shows on both Saturday and Sunday. He was relentless in his questioning; he would press incessantly, asking the same questions over and over.”

Andrews also alleged that Stokes would stare at her chest, follow her into her dressing room and invade her personal space. He was alleged to have made some of the following comments:

a. “It tortures me when you wear those heels and skirt.”
b. “You are the most attractive woman I’ve ever worked with.”
c. “I find you very attractive.”
d. “You know I find you attractive.”
e. “I could win you over if I wanted to.”
f. “I know you are attracted to me, tell me, just say it.”
g. “ Sometimes I think about what it would be like.”

Andrews rebuffed Stokes. Once it became apparent to Stokes that he was not getting anywhere he began to sabotage Andrews on the air.

At first, Andrews was reluctant about reporting to management because she knew of what happened to her predecessor and she knew managers would speak of “putting up with Bob.” When she finally requested a different partner, she asked her supervisor, “Do you need me to tell you why?” Her supervisor responded, “No, I understand.”

After reporting this incident to The Weather Channel and advising that she would no longer tolerate Stokes’ abuse, Ms. Andrews received poor job assignments. Later, she would learn that her contract would not be renewed.

Andrews alleged that The Weather Channel failed to take action on her claim because Stokes had high ratings and was popular with viewers. The Weather Channel lost this case in an arbitration proceeding in which the arbitrator was highly critical of the manner in which this case was handled. Stokes was fired after the arbitration.

Lessons Learned:

When you have a problem, address it head on.

From the facts of this case, it is clear that the employer was aware of Stokes’ conduct but chose not to be proactive. Although there may be some reluctance in taking action when a highly placed or public employee has engaged in inappropriate conduct, put those concerns aside. You have an obligation to address those problems. Handling events of this nature always becomes more complex as the size of your company grows. In small companies these events can be handled discreetly. That luxury  is not available to larger publicly-held entities who may have reporting requirements and risk, in today's volatile economic climate, having the price of their stock tumble with the disclosure of allegations of harassment or discrimination by a major figure within the company. In many  cases, as in The Weather Channel case, management was aware of a problem but chose not to act.  Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Take that to heart.  When your company becomes aware of a problem that could lead to a potential claim, don’t make excuses for an individual’s conduct, address it head on.

Handling the complaint saves you money and sends a message.

One of the great myths is that employers who do the right thing and address sexual harassment in the workplace, will get sued. I view this myth as a corollary to the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Having come from a background of representing employees, before I started to represent management, let me share the two primary reasons an employee will consult a lawyer.  The number one reason is that the employee perceives their employer is not willing to address the problem. The second reason stems from their perception that management will not or is not treating them fairly.  Generally, the problem lies in a failure to communicate policies, processes and expectations to the employee, as well as, a failure to follow up with the reporting party after a report has been made.

By being proactive, more often than not, you will stop a claim in its tracks. In addition, you will save the hard costs of litigation which can run upwards of several hundred thousand dollars in defense fees and costs. You will also save your company from what I call the soft costs of litigation. By soft costs I mean the general loss in productivity that is experienced, the loss of time associated with the retrieval of data as the parties exchange information, and the loss of time associated with participation in litigation related events such as depositions and trial. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. You should never roll over just because a claim is made. However, if you determine unlawful harassment or discrimination has occurred, be firm, consistent, and make it clear to all concerned that you intend to stop the problem. In doing so, you will send a message that your company does not tolerate this type of conduct. This is one time where the rumor mill will work to your advantage. Consider the following. Joe is fired for sexually harassing female coworkers. When his replacement is hired, one of the first questions to coworkers will be, “What happened to the person who had my job?” What do you think Joe’s coworkers will say?  It will be much easier to get a judge or jury to be sympathetic to you, if they see your company acted when it was required to act and took meaningful remedial action designed to stop the offensive conduct.

How will your  actions  look to a jury that has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight?

Always take considered actions. Not only should you be fair, but you should appear fair. In The Weather Channel case, perhaps someone should have thought of how their actions would be perceived at a later date.

 

In many cases, a report of harassment or discrimination may not have the necessary components needed to succeed in court but, the employer will act in such a way that gives rise to a claim for retaliation. Why? Glad you asked. Often, routine actions are taken that, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, will appear retaliatory because they were taken within a short time span after a report of harassment.

 

The 20/20 hindsight rule   also holds true for the action you take against the perpetrator of harassment. Make sure your treatment is consistent with past practice and, if not, be ready to justify why you deviated from existing protocols.  

 

Remember when you walk into that courtroom, the jury panel is probably not going to be composed of CEO’s and Human Resource professionals.  In all likelihood it will be composed of individuals who, at one time or another, had an unpleasant work experience.  They should get the impression that your actions were fair but firm.

Rod Stephens

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Rod brings a unique perspective to the table in that he represents management and employees. We feel this allows us to offer a broader perspective to our clients in that we understand cutting edge employment law issues and how they are perceived by management and employees. Employment law matters can require immediate response in times of crisis. On those occasions, you can take comfort in the knowledge that we are prepared to provide the type of response that takes advantage of years of experience.