Just over one year ago, news broke about sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Similar allegations spread quickly as the #MeToo movement gained traction and toppled many leaders.
So, how have employers responded over the past 12 months? One-third of executives say they have altered their actions to avoid behaviours that could be perceived as sexual harassment, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
These include using careful or mindful language (24 per cent), avoiding specific topics or jokes (16 per cent), extreme reactions, such as not talking to women (11 per cent), no touching (nine per cent) and a policy change or new training (six per cent).
In some parts of the United States, a leader might greet employees with a hug or “sweetheart” or “honey,” said Johnny Taylor, CEO of SHRM in Alexandria, Va.
“They were never intended to be anything but terms of endearment, pleasantries that were exchanged,” he said. “Whether they intended it or not, (the #Metoo movement) was an important way to highlight to those executives that maybe you shouldn’t do this, even if it was harmless.”
However, the changes have also meant some executives are going so far as to not invite female colleagues to networking events or on business trips, said Taylor.
“Those conversations are being had, quietly and privately, and… these are not serial sexual harassers who are worried about being caught, these are people who are just trying to manage the risk to their reputation and their lives, and these are otherwise very fine men… it’s just risk management, period.”
It’s important that people don’t over-react, and know that a random suggestion by one person has never brought down a CEO, he said.
“I appeal to their common sense, to say, ‘You don’t want your daughter, mom, wife, female friends to be excluded from opportunities because of your paranoia.’ I really put it in that context, and that helps them say, ‘OK, I probably did over-correct.’ But it’s real and it would do us as a community if in training we have those conversations.”
It’s rare to see a single, isolated allegation by an employee — there’s often a pattern of conduct involving various employees, said Sunira Chaudhri, a partner at Levitt in Toronto.
“More often than not, when we’re dealing with serious allegations in the workplace that are #MeToo-like and deal with sexual harassment or misconduct, it’s not just one employee’s experience.”
But while employers have certainly looked at changing the workplace, many are hanging onto that work-hard, play-hard culture and mentality, she said.
“Especially in industries where they’re client-facing, there’s a lot of pressure on sales or revenue generation, rewarding employees has often been (about) big boozy parties — and that culture has to change, frankly.”
Many female executives are worried about their opportunities being limited, particularly if there’s a reversion to the Old Boys club mentality because many members of management just don’t feel like it’s safe, said Chaudhri.
“Many male executives are worried about false allegations and they do wonder what could they possibly do to avoid that, or avoid the fallout of that? And what many are doing, or considering doing, is changing the way they do business, which could be very harmful for women.”
Executives have asked about how they should adjust their behaviour, while looking to send a strong message to the company because if they’re not behaving properly, then employees are not going to be able to know what standard behaviour should be like, said Stephanie Weschler, a partner at Stikeman Elliot in Montreal.
The issue of being alone with people of the opposite sex is top of mind and often comes up in training, she said.
“My answer to that is that is clearly that’s the opposite effect that anybody would want with the #MeToo movement… people need to be open and transparent and ensure that whoever it is that they’re dealing with, that they’re comfortable coming to that event, or going to the business trip.”
In some industries, women were expected to “play ball” and let the politically incorrect sexual misconduct slide, said Chaudhri.
“That’s what kept you going up the ladder, so to speak, because you were willing to turn a blind eye and not make a fuss,” she said.
“Now, however, we are seeing a change in the way those female executives that are now in those positions of power are being viewed, because if they got to their position by turning a blind eye and enabling in some ways, this sexual impropriety, the liability associated with that inaction is going to be the next phase of the #MeToo movement, where individual members of management are going to be sued personally... for their lack of action and exercising their fiduciary duty.”
Dealing with complaints
It’s disturbing to see that 76 per cent of respondents to the SHRM survey did not report sexual harassment — assuming actual harassment did occur, said Taylor.
“If you see something and you don’t say something, there’s no ability for us to do something about it.”
A lot of people decide to just suck it up and deal with it, but that means the perpetrators may go on to victimize others, he said.
“The research tells us when you have an environment like that, you have decreased employee morale, employee engagement, employee productivity — all of those things have a negative impact for employers who are investing a lot of money in employees, so it’s just not good business. So… if you want to be very down the line with this, say, ‘Forget the legality, forget the morality — it’s a productivity, it’s a business issue. If I’m spending this much on employees and I’m losing them in morale, engagement and productivity, this is bad for business.’”
The most effective ways to influence workplace culture to stop sexual harassment and foster a safe environment, according to the survey, are: enhancing HR’s ability to investigative allegations without retaliation (cited by 45 per cent); conducting independent reviews of all workplace misconduct investigations (44 per cent); and increasing diversity in leadership roles (39 per cent).
But from an HR perspective, an investigation alone is not enough, said Chaudhri.
“You have to cut out the rot, and many HR professionals and members of management are very loath to do that and go beyond the investigation phase and make those hard firing decisions,” she said. “More often than not, a verbal warning, written warning, suspension is not what’s needed — an absolute exit may very well be what’s needed.”
And while gender parity at the leadership level should always be the goal, HR has to function as a separate arm in a way, said Chaudhri.
“More often than not, employees have little faith in HR departments because they feel as though HR is there to serve the master, not the masses, and to protect the reputation of the organization,” she said.
“Because of that, organizations have to do more to have their HR operate in a more independent way to foster the trust of employees… it really is your employees that are the eyes and ears of the organization.”
The reporting mechanism is critical, said Weschler. And there needs to be explicit language about the different forms of harassment — psychological, discriminatory, sexual — and it needs to be clearly set out so employees understand.
“The last thing you want is for employees to feel they need to go outside, need to feel comfortable to stay inside with their issues so that the company can deal with it as opposed to dealing with it on social media or the public eye, or frankly, them filing complaints with the employment board in the province.”
However, many employees want to remain anonymous, which is a challenge, said Chaudhri.
“Many employees are very fearful of signing their name to the bottom of a statement, and frankly it makes it that much more difficult for an employer to investigate, because not being able to tie a name to allegations, you also of course have to consider the impact on the alleged abuser, and them being able to properly respond to allegations,” she said.
“It’s like herding cats, wrangling down witness statements, things like that, where people are concerned about potential involvement and their name being attached to salacious and sensitive allegations.”
While anonymity might make sense if you’re trying to weed out guilty leaders, said Chaudhri, “practically, functionally, it’s a really difficult promise for an employer to make because they have an obligation to investigate.”
But the prolific use of social media and apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp has been a help. Before, it was largely a he said/she said scenario, but now there may be sexually inappropriate memes or solicitations, she said.
“We are seeing employees and management fraternizing socially outside of the workplace — in all forums, like social media, etcetera — and that’s really changing the lens from an evidentiary perspective, anyway, what a #MeToo allegation could look like. It’s not simply coming down to one person’s word against the other.”
More and more, employers are really taking proactive steps, in taking a look at their policies and making sure those aren’t forgotten, said Weschler.
“The last thing that employers want at this point is to be the subject of a headline, and I think they’re realizing there’s no more of letting things go and being quiet about it, they need to be loud,” she said.
“Employers are realizing they’re better off educating employees and giving them the tools they need to deal with these situations, rather than trying to shy away from it, because anybody who’s trying to shy away from it ends up being in the public eye and that’s much worse for them than trying to deal with it internally.”
Overall, the #MeToo movement has been amazing in dealing with an issue that has been a challenge since the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, and the scandal involving intern Monica Lewinsky and former president Bill Clinton in 1998, said Taylor.
“We’ve been here before and the ultimate question is: Will this have legs and stick? And I’m encouraged — here we are a year later, and it really has, it didn’t go away like it did the last time,” he said. “We’re at this inflection point and it went the right way this time, which should lead to lasting culture change.”
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