It started with Harvey Weinstein and gained unstoppable velocity when thousands of women posted true, painful stories using the hashtag #MeToo. Serious, long-buried sexual harassment complaints have rocked many workplaces – including ones not at all prepared to handle the topic.
Even organizations well-equipped to handle sexual harassment complaints and investigations are finding that their wheels are going off the tracks when faced with tension between two workplace groups – those ready for massive change NOW, given #MeToo empowerment, and those who fear they now wear a target on their backs.
Most women can recall at least one incident, ranging from sexual assault to inappropriate behavior, that made us feel shamed or demeaned. At the time it occurred, we faced two bad choices. We could ignore what happened and work around it, or we could push back and potentially suffer negative career consequences. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that three-quarters of those subjected to workplace sexual harassment never made a complaint.
Problems didn't occur in all workplaces; but low-level sexual harassment went unchecked in many. Women learned how to navigate what was the norm and to bury what they couldn't fix. Those who didn't experience sexual harassment first-hand had no idea anything problematic was happening. In some workplaces, women relied on whisper networks which passed on warnings such as "don't get caught alone working late if 'X' is around."
#MeToo exploded the silence and shocked even many that participated in it. It ignited an "OMG, how could it have been so pervasive for so long without us stopping it?" anger. Now that there's been a spotlight on a kind of conduct that's embedded in many workplaces, harassers who'd gotten away with problem behaviors for years found themselves under fire.
Media accounts revealed how many organizations allowed harassment. Susan Fowler's now-famous blog post showed screenshots of chat messages in which her direct supervisor at Uber tried to get her "to have sex with him." She revealed how pitiful her employer's response was as well.
“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ … and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.” Four months later, when external attorneys investigated 215 separate sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation and bias cases, Uber fired 20 employees, issued “final warnings” to another seven and gave 31 others remedial training.
What do employers need to do?
Organizations and managers and employees at all levels need to decide whether #MeToo is a wake-up call or an occasion to simply hit the snooze button. If we want change, many organizations need to revamp their culture at the most basic level.
Ninety-five percent of the women in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll stated that men who sexually harass women usually get away with it.
An organization's leaders need to clearly state that sexual harassment doesn't belong in the workplace and isn't tolerated. If in the past they've given only lip service to these words, they need to make clear that no one is above the law.
Employers need to evaluate how they handle harassment. Policies need to be more than paper, which means they have to be enforced. Mid-level managers need to realize they have accountability to act if they see a problem. Further, organizations that have focused on protecting themselves rather than eliminating harassment need to re-prioritize.
Employers need to assess how they make it safe for those facing or witnessing harassment to report it. Strategies such as anonymous surveys may be helpful in organizations in which past practices have led targets to fear the negative consequences of reporting problems, particularly against highly-placed individuals. HR needs to provide training that includes letting managers and employees know what's changed and what employees can do if they experience or witness harassment.
HR needs to investigate all allegations promptly, even if the conduct was years ago, if the alleged accuser is still employed within the company. As recent accounts prove, one allegation often represents the tip of an iceberg. Failure to investigate potentially increases the employer's liability if future problems then surface.
HR needs to provide positive resolution for those who bring legitimate allegations and to ensure that those unfairly targeted by false accusations are equally protected.
Finally, those of us who've put up with harassment need to be brave and stand up for what's right.