Guidance for a Newsroom Leader

Journalism is a calling, and getting a story to print or air requires a strong team and sometimes nothing short of a miracle. Newsrooms have a unique challenge in that they operate under intense deadlines with limited room for mistakes. Journalists can also be demanding – it’s what makes them so effective at their jobs! Balancing this unique environment while establishing civility and respect among colleagues to get the work done requires leadership.

There are some lines that cannot be crossed, however, and no employee should experience sexual harassment, or made to feel the workplace is demeaning or traumatic. It is your responsibility to create trust with your employees by establishing safety – both in preventing workplace misconduct and also in allowing staff to feel comfortable to come forward to share concerns. Work with your HR partner to communicate guidance. Ask for feedback from your staff what you could do better.

For some newsrooms, the revelations of abuses of power were a shock for those in leadership positions but unfortunately a reality for those more vulnerable in the business. We at Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media first encourage you to be an ally for those experiencing harassment and start the difficult work of culture change. It’s not only the right thing to do, it is the law. Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media’s key initiative will be our in-depth study that we expect will reveal a blueprint for new and lasting solutions in newsrooms and beyond to allow journalists to do their best work. While we complete this effort, please take a look at these pieces on things you can do today as a leader in your field and sign up for our newsletter for more information on this topic.

Rules of Engagement

Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media believes both men and women should feel safe to work together. We understand a lot of guys are feeling a bit unsafe right now, or worried they may have said something that will land them in HR. Don’t worry, we love guys. And we will help you find the lines in any grey areas so that everyone can have a productive work life between the sexes. Please don’t be afraid of us! After all, this problem is about a small subset of predatory men (or women) who abuse their power, not the majority of men (or women). This isn’t a woman’s issue – it’s a human decency issue. So if you’re a normal guy you should be ok.  

Despite progress made to root out egregious predators or illegal behavior in the workplace, we are sensitive to reports and anecdotal stories from men limiting or changing how they interact with women in the workplace, fearing they might say or do something that could be misinterpreted as a sexual advance or harassment.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media believes that men and women should be able to work harmoniously without fear of being wrongfully accused because the vast majority are good people, working with the best of intentions. We encourage women to give men the benefit of the doubt and be equipped with the communication skills to respond to uncomfortable scenarios, and be able to identify and know what to do with unlawful behavior. Segregating the sexes would only serve to further subjugate women (it’s not only unfair but illegal) so instead let’s seek to empower both sexes to work together towards a better future and outcomes for both men and women.

While the work of lasting change is happening, here are a few unwritten rules to guide your interactions with the opposite sex:

FIRST:  Don’t be a jerk.  Being a jerk by teasing someone or telling offensive jokes that demean them for their looks or gender is not OK and creates a hostile work environment often rising to meet the standard of sexual harassment.  Just be nice to your co-workers when interacting. You can even go a step further and try to help out a coworker faced with harassment by learning how to spot it and stop it from your point of view.

NEXT:  Don’t say something that you couldn’t also say in the exact same way to that person’s mother.  For example, you could say, “I like your top,” to both your coworker and their mother. But you would not say that while also raising your eyebrows suggestively and using your hands to cup your pretend breasts.  So keep your tone and “commentary” in line with what’s appropriate for a co-worker AND their mom.

THEN:  Remember, just because someone dresses provocatively, that does not mean they are asking for your sexual advances or interested in dating you, nor is it appropriate to make sexual comments based on their appearance.  While we agree everyone should dress appropriately at work, sometimes that means different things to different people. If the clothing is truly offensive or controversial, ask an HR ally for advice on how to handle it.

FINALLY:  Remember to use your best judgment.  Think before you speak or do. Think of how your words or actions might affect the other person and whether or not you would like it said or done to you.  Remember the Golden Rule. This is something we all learned on the playground and need to remember and put to practice as adults in today’s modern world.

Here’s a handy chart to help further differentiate between what’s appropriate and what’s not:


Saying, “I like your shoes.” “Ooooh.  I like your new f-me pumps.” Or “I like your shoes” with hand gestures and eye movements to insinuate sexiness.
Being alone with or having a closed-door meeting in your office with someone of the opposite sex. During the meeting positioning yourself so close to that person that you are touching, rubbing their knee, other inappropriate touching including asking them to sit in your lap. Kissing them when they ask you to keep it professional. Using sexual innuendo to talk about business matters.  Also, there should be no logical reason to lock the door unless there is a madman on the loose in the building.
Asking someone who is not your direct report and preferably not even in your department on a date.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media knows first-hand that you can meet your spouse at the office in an appropriate way. Asking your direct report or inferior on a date and promising a career boost if they go or sleep with you.  Or engaging in or threatening retaliation if they don’t. This is something very tricky to do in an acceptable manner because of the power imbalance, so just ask someone else out who’s not a subordinate instead.
Wearing pants or a skirt in the office. Taking off your pants or skirt.  Walking around naked in a bathrobe. Masturbating in front of a co-worker.  Ejaculating into a plant in front of them. Revealing genitals in any way. (It may seem obvious, but these things actually happen.)
Offering to talk with someone about career opportunities. Offering to talk about opportunities and then asking for sex with or without offering a quid pro quo for career advancement.

While many of us have male mentors and colleagues, we recognize offering to talk about opportunities over a meal or drinks could be fine, many of us at Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media experienced harassment when put in this seemingly OK situation as young women.  If there is a practical way to avoid this, that may be a good idea. Even without an overt quid pro quo proposition, it is a gray area allowing for room for confusion. Set up informational interviews in your office and keep the door open, or get coffee in a public place.

Having lunch with a co-worker of the opposite sex. Having any meal with a coworker and asking for sex, especially in exchange for betterment in the workplace.
Sharing a photo of your new puppy or baby. Sharing images of your genitals or other pornographic images.
Telling jokes. Telling jokes of a sexual nature that could offend or demean a co-worker (save those for a night out with friends). Excluding women from leadership opportunities, group dinners or conversations because she won’t find the group’s sense of humor funny or you fear having a woman in the room will lead someone to end up in HR or in the headlines (unfortunately this can be considered unlawful discrimination). If you’re not sure what’s funny or appropriate, see items above.

If You’re Being Harassed

When faced with sexual harassment in the workplace, most of us don’t have the training to know what to do or say when it happens.  Many times we are shocked and rendered speechless, or comply with their requests because we don’t know how to say “no” to a person who holds the power over our careers.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media Board of Advisor and New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Carlson provides detailed and strategic advice in her best-selling book Be Fierce:  Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back on what to do if you find yourself in this situation.  Her entire book is full of helpful information on this topic.  With Gretchen’s permission, we have excerpted her 12-step approach to documenting and reporting illegal and abusive behavior.   Read these steps carefully…Gretchen offers critical words of wisdom, beginning with an important mantra.

  1. I have a right to fulfill my dreams.
  2. I have a right to pursue any career I choose.
  3. I have a right to excel without malicious interference.
  4. I have a right to be treated with respect in my professional and personal lives.
  5. I have a right not to be touched unless I want to be touched.
  6. I have a right to work in an environment free of visuals that demean and objectify women.
  7. I have a right not to be stalked.
  8. I have a right to be called by my name, not diminutive nicknames.
  9. I have a right to work without hearing comments about my body or appearance.
  10. I have a right to not be pestered for dates when I make it clear that I have no interest.
  11. I have a right to advance up the ladder based on my hard work and abilities.
  12. I have a right to speak out without fear of retaliation or intimidation when I am demeaned, harassed or assaulted.
  13. I have a right to be myself, not be defined by stereotypes.


Gretchen begins by stressing the importance of educating yourself about the workplace before you even accept a position, doing so with your “Eyes Wide Open.” This means knowing your rights under the law and your rights within the company.  Here are the things to consider:

What can you learn about the company?  Do you know people who have worked there and can give you a fair account of the working environment?  Has the company been in the news for workplace violations or employee complaints?

When you take a tour of the workplace, what do you notice?  What’s the mood?  Is there a diverse staff makeup?  Are there women managers?

Carefully read your contract, and ask questions about things you don’t understand.  Make a note if there is a required arbitration clause for complaints.

Carefully read the employee handbook, if there is one.  Some companies have very specific steps to take if you experience sexual harassment, and your case is jeopardized if you don’t take them.   

The larger point is, always go into a job (even an intern) knowing where you are, what the company stands for, what it thinks of you, what it expects of you, and what your rights are.


The first time you experience inappropriate behavior, even if it seems minor, start writing it down in a journal.  Do not keep this journal on your work computer or in your office where your employer can gain access. In addition, send emails to yourself, detailing in narrative fashion your experiences.  This also creates a contemporaneous record. If the harasser is texting, emailing, or sending cards or notes to you, keep copies.

Our friends at Better Brave have created printable forms to help you with documentation depending on whether you are currently working, were terminated, or resigned.


Forget about staying silent and hoping it will blow over; that stance sends an unintended message that the behavior is OK.  Some harassment situations, whether on the street or in the office, can be stopped by a confident retort:

  • “My name is ____.  Please don’t call me honey.”
  • “That makes me uncomfortable.”
  • “I’m not interested in dating you.  Don’t ask me again.”
  • “Stop touching me.”
  • “Back off.”
  • “That wasn’t funny.”
  • “Stop staring.”
  • “You’re in my space.”
  • “Don’t rub my shoulders”
  • “That’s offensive.”
  • “No!”
  • “Don’t!”
  • “Stop it!”
  • “Don’t ever speak that way to me again.”
  • “You need to leave.”
  • “You’re embarrassing yourself.”
  • “That’s harassment.”
  • You have a right to say what you mean, and to be heard.

I realize that many women may be nervous about saying anything at all.  And they may be right to be, because let’s face it: not every person who is confronted, even in a polite way, is going to respond well, especially if the power imbalance is great.

This step in Gretchen’s book resonated with the members of Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media because the majority of us did not know what to say or do when faced with harassment since it was so unexpected, but wish we had this list committed to memory. If in the moment of becoming a victim of harassment you are unable to confront the harasser directly, try to make it clear that the conduct is unwanted in some way.


Now, more than ever, you need a support system.  It’s an absolute necessity! Telling others about your experience will make you feel stronger and heighten your resolve.  One of the most compelling arguments for women who have come forward even years later was the fact that they told people when it happened.

I realize that in some toxic company cultures, speaking to anyone can feel dangerous.  Who can you trust? Who has your back? It’s scary to go out on a limb.

Be observant.  Does the harasser put other women you work with in compromising positions, or treat them poorly?  Approach these women about their experiences. Say, “I saw what Bill said to you this morning. I thought it was awful.  Are you doing OK?” Let them know they have an ally in you, and they might become your ally.


A recording could be the gold-standard of proof.  However, the use of a tape recorder is a very tricky matter, especially legally.  The best way to find out if you have the legal right to make on-party recordings is to check the laws in your state.  They vary. Currently, there are 11 states in which it is illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties.  In some cases  it is legal to make a one-party recording, but such a recording is not admissible as evidence in court.  Even if you live in a state where one-party recording is legal, your company may have a policy that makes surreptitious recordings a fireable offense.  Before you consider doing this, be sure to check the law and your company’s policy.


Don’t get blindsided by failing to follow the complaint procedure established by your company–98 percent of companies have them.  Follow it to the letter. There’s an important reason for that: The Supreme Court has ruled that if a company has a procedure in place for reporting sexual harassment, the company cannot be expected to fix the situation unless an employee reports it.  The court has ruled that companies have a right to try to address the situation, and if you deny them that right, you might not be able to bring a lawsuit.


In most companies, employees are required to bring a complaint to HR if they expect action.  However, as we’ve discussed, this can be a scary prospect. Many employees fear that coming forward will just make things worse, and in cases, it does.

Make sure you have a plan before going to HR or telling a supervisor or company counsel.  Often, women take it and take and take, and then finally erupt and go to HR before they’ve thought things through.  One you make a claim, you can’t go back and collect evidence and create a plan. And if you have an arbitration clause in your contract, the minute you make a claim, the company will move to put you in arbitration as soon as possible to keep everything under wraps.

Broken reporting systems can sometimes make things worse for a victim with little to no repercussions for the accused.  Unfortunately, however, this is a necessary step in this process and it is important to follow your policy manual to the tee when reporting.  There is much room for improvement in creating effective reporting systems; Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media plans to research and deliver concrete solutions for positive change in this regard.


In this step, Gretchen explains how companies will sometimes try to set up meetings between the accuser and accused to “clear the air.”  “It sends the message that this is a conflict that is up to both parties to equally work out, rather than an complaint that one of them has done something wrong.  These traps and unhelpful responses that, in effect, punish the victim all over again can happen even in the large companies.”


There are two kinds of retaliation: direct and environmental.  Direct retaliation occurs when people in authority take negative actions against you because you complained or refused inappropriate advances.  These actions can include giving poor performance evaluations, demoting you or transferring you to a less desirable job, being physically or verbally abusive, threatening you, turning others against you, spreading lies about you or even firing you….

Environmental retaliation is harder to prove and more difficult to stop.  You can’t make coworkers like or talk to you, especially if they think shutting you out improves their own job security.  Even when coworkers sympathize and privately offer support, many of them just want to keep their heads down and not get involved.  If you have supporters on the team, enlist them to help you break through the freeze.

Retaliation of any sort is illegal and should not be allowed to persist.   If you are supporting a victim of harassment or abuse, please direct them to this helpful guide from Better Brave advice and guidance.


Most lawyers I’ve spoken to advise women to retain a lawyer before they make a complaint.  There is no question that an experienced sexual harassment attorney can help you avoid the many pitfalls you face when you go it alone against your company.  However, lawyers cost money, and many of the women I’ve spoken to were able to engage a lawyer only when they knew they were filing a lawsuit and were able to make a contingency agreement.


There is one more hurdle to cross.  Before you can bring a discrimination or harassment lawsuit under federal law, you must file an administrative charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency.  This is a legal requirement: If you file a lawsuit without first having filed a charge (called “exhausting” your administrative remedies, legally speaking), your lawsuit will be thrown out.  Depending on your state, you have 180 or 300 days from the date of the sexual harassment incident(s) to file. So, even if you’re not sure you’re going to file a lawsuit, the clock is ticking.

If you think you are interested in filing a lawsuit, now or in the future, be sure to consult an attorney in your area for clarity on your local laws because, as Gretchen noted, the clock really is ticking.  Keep in mind you may be eligible for legal assistance from TIME’S UP™  Legal Defense Fund.  


In this final step Gretchen advocates for all of us to stand up and push for change in our workplaces.

“True workplace change starts with a top-down commitment to equality and a positive workplace culture,” she writes.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media aims to empower journalists and newsroom leaders to“be the change.” But the process requires day-to-day commitment and a clear understanding of problems that need to be tackled. To that end we will be researching means for effective cultural change in newsrooms and working through our other initiatives until there is no longer a problem to be solved.  Please join us in this journey to “be the change” and Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media.

Finally, if you are in need of immediate help for a case of sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace—What You Need to Know

Sexual Harassment Is…

  • Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination that violates federal and state law. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees; similar state laws can apply to employers with as few as two employees. So more likely than not, your employer is covered.
  • It can include propositioning a coworker for sex, sexualizing them by inappropriately commenting on their appearance, telling offensive jokes or sharing pornographic images, or degrading a person’s gender in general. It is words or conduct that is unrelated and unproductive in the workplace that negatively impacts one or more coworkers.
  • There are two common forms of sexual harassment: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Work Environment. You can read more details on the EEOC website.
  • Quid Pro Quois when a supervisor offers something to or threatens an employee in exchange for sex. This is illegal and wrong even if the employee acquiesces.
  • Hostile Work Environmentis when unwelcome sexual advances and/or verbal or physical conduct affects a person’s employment by interfering with their ability to do their job or by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
  • Around 15% of EEOC sexual harassment complaints are filed by men. Victims and harassers can be men or women, and victim-harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • Not Just Supervisor-Employee.Illegal sexual harassment can be committed by a supervisor, agent, coworker, someone else within the company, or even a non-employee. A victim does not even have to be the person harassed, but can be a witness or other employee affected by the offensive conduct.

If I’m not being harassed, why should it matter to me?

If you haven’t experienced these types of behaviors, chances are someone close to you has be subjected to them.  A new study from Stop Street Harassment shows 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some sort of harassment or assault in their lives.  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media hopes in today’s world, eyes have been opened and everyone has an opportunity to be an ally in these situations and can work together to improve their  company’s workplace culture.  But there are economic reasons as well.

The last major study of the financial burden of sexual harassment in the workplace dates to 1988. In it, researchers found that the average Fortune 500 company was losing $6.7 MILLION each year because of sexual harassment in the workplace. Lowered productivity, higher turnover, and absences add up to the $6.7 figure; it does not even include legal costs, settlements, or jury awards. These numbers also do not consider the emotional and physical toll sexual harassment takes on victims. Studies show that sexual harassment early in a person’s career can have a long-term depressive effect on mental health.

So why does sexual harassment still happen?

Sexual harassment is already illegal, and it’s very likely your company has a policy in place. So why does this keep happening? Two reasons: victims don’t know that what is being done to them is illegal (lack of awareness) or they believe that reporting will hurt their career (toxic culture).

Lack of awareness—If your company holds Title VII or sexual harassment training, pay attention! This is not a time to catch up on sleep, but an opportunity to learn about your rights. If your company does not hold training, suggest to HR or your supervisor that they do.  (There is evidence that these trainings are not always effective in their current form, but Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media is working to change that.) But a little refresher on federal law, state law, and your company’s policy can still go a long way. In the meantime, you can read about your rights,  what constitutes harassment, and our guide on what to do next.

Toxic Culture—If you report sexual harassment, you are legally protected from retaliation, including termination.  Employers are required to have adequate reporting mechanisms and to investigate all complaints.  Please check out our guide on what to do if you’re being harassed for more information on filing complaints.

Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media Advisor Gretchen Carlson’s book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, acknowledges that “by the time sexual harassment is a reality in a company, there are signs that other things have already gone off the rails.”  If a company has allowed this behavior to permeate their culture, there is much work to be done to improve their culture.  Carlson writes, “true workplace change starts with a top-down commitment to equality and a positive workplace culture.”  Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media is committed to finding concrete solutions to remedy these workplace culture problems to eradicate these behaviors.