#MeToo Hits the Workplace

The accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein and others have unleashed a cascade of reports of similar conduct across a wide range of industries. As the #MeToo campaign has caught fire on social media, women and men of seemingly all ages, all professions, and all levels have come forward to share their own stories. Perhaps no professionals are feeling the impact of this movement right now as much those on the HR front lines.

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Victims who had been reluctant to speak up are feeling emboldened, and others are just coming to understand that they have been victimized, resulting in a surge of complaints to HR. At the same time, some in management are looking at their own actions in a new light, wondering if they have crossed lines, and looking to HR for guidance.

Expect More Complaints

Unlike many headlines in today’s frenzied 24/7 news cycle, those related to sexual harassment aren’t going away. Almost every day, new stories are coming out about the famous and the not so famous. That means HR professionals should expect to receive more complaints about sexual harassment in coming days as traditional barriers to reporting fall away.

One of the biggest obstacles has long been the fear of retaliation. Studies cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a 2016 report found that sexual harassment reporting is often followed by organizational indifference, trivialization of the complaint, and hostility and reprisals against the complainant.

Observers of sexual harassment against others may not lodge reports because of the so-called bystander effect. As Mary Corrado explains in an article on the American Society of Employers website, people are less likely to report an incident if others are around to witness it. She cites two reasons: (1) Each person assumes someone else will report it; and (2) each person assumes nothing must be wrong if no one is intervening.

Finally, male-dominated organizations or companies with highly masculine cultures often suppress sexual harassment reporting. The atmosphere in such places can promote “locker room talk.” As Corrado puts it, “women tend to see harassment where men see harmless fun.” To report harassment, then, is to turn on your colleagues and ruin their good time.

But these barriers are crumbling in the wake of the #MeToo movement. There’s strength in numbers, and victims are looking around, realizing they’re not alone, and heading to HR.

New Conceptions of ‘Sexual Harassment’

One of the most significant effects of the #MeToo movement has been renewed attention paid to just what constitutes sexual harassment. This is another reason workplace complaints are on the rise—the more familiar women become with the legal definition, the greater the number of women who report experiencing sexual harassment.

The 2016 EEOC report, for example, found that 25% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment when the term was not defined for them. But 40% reported experiencing unwanted sexual attention or coercion even if they didn’t label it as sexual harassment. And 60% reported experiencing unwanted sexual attention or coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace.

In other words, HR can’t afford to assume that the lack of reports in the past translates to a lack of actionable sexual harassment. Many employees are only now understanding that their rights have been violated.

What to Do Now

There’s no time like the present to review your sexual harassment policies and procedures and offer another round of training to managers and employees. You can use current events to capture attention that might otherwise stray. With all of the stories circulating, you can easily illustrate the types of behaviors that can be considered sexual harassment (perhaps to the surprise of some harassers), including:

  • Sharing or displaying sexually inappropriate photos or videos;
  • Sending suggestive messages;
  • Making suggestive comments or gestures;
  • Telling lewd jokes or sexual anecdotes;
  • Commenting on appearance, clothes, or body parts;
  • Asking coworkers sexual questions (for example, questions about their sexual history or orientation);
  • Staring or whistling;
  • Engaging in sexual conduct in the presence of a coworker;
  • Invading a coworker’s personal space; and
  • Repeatedly asking a coworker for a date.

Evaluate your reporting process to make sure it’s available to everyone and truly confidential. That might mean providing a bilingual hotline or adding reporting avenues so employees have more than one option (imagine working for Weinstein and being required to report harassment to your immediate supervisor). Make sure everyone is familiar with the reporting process, and take immediate action when complaints are received.

You also should train your managers and supervisors on how to recognize a harassment complaint—an employee may not use the word “complaint” while bringing an incident to their attention. They need to know when they should implement the process even in the absence of a formal complaint.

Finally, don’t forget that women aren’t the only victims of harassment. Plenty of men have also joined the #MeToo movement, and their experiences shouldn’t be discounted.