HR Management & Compliance

Q&A Did #MeToo Have a Sufficient Impact?

The question has often been asked: What impact did the #MeToo movement have on sexual harassment in the workplace? Recent research found that while many believe there has been a positive impact, there has been some disagreement about to what degree.

I had a chance to discuss the research with Debora Roland, Vice President of Human Resources for CareerArc.

Your recent research on the impact of #MeToo on the workforce showed some interesting and mixed results. What was the most encouraging finding?

Today, 76% of employed Americans feel the #MeToo movement has made a positive impact on how sexual harassment is addressed in the workplace. That’s very encouraging because it shows the massive amount of work HR professionals have been doing in the last couple years has been noticed—and appreciated—by employees. These really have been busy times for HR. Protecting victims, putting new policies in place, addressing offenders, changing workplace cultures—none of these are easy tasks, and many of them take long-term, concerted efforts to achieve. So it’s truly heartening to know that more than three-quarters of U.S. workers appreciate the steps HR has taken. We never want to hear, “Where was HR?”

What does the positive impact from the #MeToo movement look like in the workplace?

Some of the most noticeable impacts are very direct, meaning we’ve seen pretty significant changes in the way sexual harassment complaints are handled in the workplace. We’ve seen many offenders who were in power lose that power, and we’ve seen many victims of sexual harassment empowered to speak out and demand justice. Many companies have put policies and procedures in place to make it easier to report sexual harassment without fear of being silenced or retaliation and to ensure those reports will be taken seriously.

But I think #MeToo has also had less-direct impacts in the workplace that are just as, or even more, important. Sexual harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s, in many ways, a sign of much larger work culture issues—severe underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, for example, or the devaluation of roles or duties typically taken on by women or the under-compensation of women performing the same work as men. #MeToo has pointed out that all these things are related. This has forced organizations to take a more in-depth look at some larger, structural issues. My hope is that #MeToo will continue to change how companies not only handle sexual harassment but also, on a more fundamental level, ensure respect, recognition, and equity for all employees.

You reported that many (68%) found a new voice because of #MeToo. Can you explain what that means and why it’s significant?

We found 68% of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement has made them feel more empowered to report sexual harassment in the workplace. I think this stat shows us just how much silencing there was around this topic before #MeToo. People believed their speaking out would not result in any meaningful action or would make them subject to retaliation. So the fact that so many people today feel they can and should speak up is a major sign of progress. It also shows efforts to educate people about whistleblower laws—laws that protect people who come forward—are also having a positive effect.

Some of the findings were not so positive. For one, 44% said that the movement damaged trust between HR and employees. Can you provide some context?

I think a significant number of people really didn’t know the true depth of the problems brought to light by #MeToo. Yes, people knew sexual harassment happened and maybe even that it happened frequently. But many of us were truly horrified to discover the level of deliberate cover-ups and retaliation perpetrated by some companies in order to silence victims and protect offenders. Once the Weinstein story and others broke, all the dirty details came out—and those details damaged trust. It was very clear that HR has not always been on the victimized employee’s side.

That said, the findings also show that perceptions about HR are changing. HR practitioners have been working hard to learn from their and others’ mistakes and move forward, repairing relationships and changing cultures. HR professionals also have protections under the law in investigating such claims and  should not be in fear of losing their own jobs in these situations. There are remedies for such retaliation if it occurs. It would be interesting to conduct another study a year or 2 from now to see if that breach in trust has been mended.

There were many (77%) who believed that the movement has not done enough to prevent sexual harassment. Was that ever a possibility? What’s the lesson here?

Well, 77% of employed Americans said the #MeToo movement is not enough to completely prevent sexual harassment in the workplace—and I would agree that “completely prevent” is a pretty high bar. Like you, unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll ever have a world entirely free of sexual harassment.

But I do believe we can get close to that ideal—if we work continuously to achieve it. We will get there if we don’t settle for half-measures or the simple ticking off of legal checklists. Earlier this week, I read this in a newsletter for HR professionals: “He stopped harassing after watching a training video … said no one EVER!” It made me chuckle because the point it was making is true. We can’t expect to fix big, systemic problems by doing the bare minimum. We have to change the culture. This is something we at CareerArc are trying to help HR practitioners do through studies like these and practical information about spearheading culture change in the wake of #MeToo.

Mixed messages like those found here can be confusing for audiences. Can you help us understand the middle ground?

I would say the overarching message of our research is this: HR has done a lot of great work in the wake of #MeToo—and HR still has a lot more work to do. Of course, HR should always seek legal counsel and guidance in these situations. The good news in all this is that we in HR really have a big opportunity now. We can change how sexual harassment cases are managed, of course, but we can also change how our workplaces evolve. Shifting cultural norms, rethinking hierarchical structures, facilitating communication, encouraging transparency, fostering equity—this is the kind of work that made me enter a career in HR, and it’s what I think excites other HR leaders, too.