Sexual Harassment: What This Means in the #MeToo Era

me too era

One of the sectors that took the most punches out of the #MeToo phenomenon is the field of human resource management.

The movement has exposed the current policies companies have toward handling sexual harassment cases to the point that HR teams were branded as passive and conniving with or covering up for the misdeeds of employers or business owners.

Harassment reports and lawsuits have since pushed many companies to look at the problem squarely in the face and make tough accountability decisions.

The Unmasking of HR Weaknesses

The #MeToo and the succeeding #TimesUp movements laid bare several HR deficiencies, which organizations continue to watch out for today as they determine how to handle harassment at work:

Shortage of guidance

Around 20% of respondents in a 2018 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said they were unaware of sexual harassment policies, indicating that discussion on guidelines of such crucial nature was not given much thought.

The policy was reportedly normally discussed only during the orientation of new employees or trainings scheduled once or twice a year.

Nearly 70% of female respondents in a July 2018 survey by the ABA Journal said they experienced sexual harassment, but only 30% of them reported the incident.

Victims hesitated to report sexual misconduct due to fears that they would lose their privacy; have no one to believe them; be labeled as liars, con artists, or gold diggers; or lose their jobs or career development opportunities.

Lack of meaningful data

The exclusion of sexual harassment issues in regular employee surveys as well as lack of documentation about complaints received and training implemented can make it easy for companies to forget about incidents and lessons learned from them.

Lack of due diligence

Companies failed to do sufficient background checks on prospective partners—through court records, diversity practices, and social media presence—in relation to sexual harassment during mergers and acquisitions.

Giving low importance to inclusivity

There were few to no discussions to ensure respect, mutual understanding, and protection for women and the LGBT community.

Frustrations and Challenges

Organizations and their HR departments experienced the following ups and downs as #MeToo and #TimesUp gained ground in 2017 and 2018.

Loss of trust and birth of alternative reporting channels

As employee trust plunged to an all-time low, “HR is not your friend” became the public outcry. The poor response of Uber’s personnel department when Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, publicly disclosed that her manager proposed sex when she joined in 2017 was among the top cases that turned the spotlight on the HR department.

As a result, employees have since taken to social media and mobile apps like Blind, Bravely, and Loris.ai to warn others or share their experiences.

Workers have also grown suspicious about the impartiality and qualifications of HR to objectively investigate cases, prompting some companies to hire outside help.

Higher reporting of complaints

The number of sexual harassment complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2018 rose 13.6% from the previous year while the number of lawsuits filed by the agency rose 50% from 2017 figures.

Reduction in available employment practices liability insurance (EPLI)

The surge in sexual harassment reports and cases in recent years has been linked to a decline in the number of insurers that write up EPLIs to various businesses.

A survey by Betterley Risk Consultants showed that 10 of 32 of the world’s top insurers stopped offering EPLI policies for brokers, venture capital operations, investment banks, and other financial companies. Others blacklisted entertainment and media firms, as well as car dealerships, law firms, and other businesses where perpetrators got away with misbehavior due to their contributions to the firm’s profitability.

Improved accountability in HR and among business leaders

A 2018 survey by career consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas among 150 HR executives said that 52% of companies reviewed their sexual harassment policies.

A survey by the SHRM showed that 1 in 3 business executives changed their behavior in the workplace after #MeToo.

HR speaker and writer Suzanne Lucas said that 69% of firms have launched, planned to launch, or improved ways their executives respond to complaints after the #MeToo phenomenon.

Awareness, accountability, and transparency about sexual harassment were taken very seriously in places like California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York that their state governments passed laws on how to handle harassment at work.

The laws prohibit the prevention of disclosing sexual harassment information and seeking a waiver on employees’ right to a future claim of sexual harassment or retaliation for reporting incidents.

The laws also require the distribution of sexual harassment policy and information sheets on sexual harassment to employees, as well as interactive training and education.

Leadership and Company Culture’s Role in Change

The EEOC declared that sexual harassment prevention should be a C-suite priority.

In a public meeting it held in October last year, the EEOC acting chair Victoria Lipnic said that workplace culture, policies, procedures, training, and accountability will all be necessary, but change will definitely have to begin “at the top with strong and committed leadership.”

An organization can lose $22,500 on average due to loss of employee morale and employee productivity for every incident of workplace sexual harassment. So leaders are beginning to wise up and be proactive with the issue.

The Harvard Business Review says that when management communicates or establishes an organizational climate that is intolerant of sexual harassment, employees believe the organizations they work for will take complaints seriously and make perpetrators responsible.

Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy Writing

The EEOC has always advocated having an “explicit policy against sexual harassment” that is “clearly and regularly communicated” as a preventative measure against such misbehavior.

The EEOC has a checklist containing the following questions to test if your policy has the elements to carry out a holistic prevention effort.

  • A clear statement that harassment based on any protected characteristic, including sex or gender, age, race, national origin, and disability will not be tolerated.
  • Easy-to-understand definition and examples of prohibited behavior. Some organizations have ended events held at strip clubs because some male employees behaved inappropriately towards their female colleagues.
  • Description of your company’s reporting or complaint system—formal and informal channels—for those who experience harassment or those who observe harassment.
  • Statement assuring that the reporting mechanism will conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation. Companies are advised to keep executives and corporate officers from investigating serious workplace misconduct as they are almost always seen as biased against the complainant and supporting the employer.
  • Statement saying that the identity of the employee submitting a report, a witness providing information on the incident, the target of the complaint, and any information gathered as part of the investigation will become confidential.
  • An assurance of immediate and proportionate corrective discipline or action.
  • An assurance that the complainant or a witness who provides information about a report will be protected from retaliation from co-workers and supervisors.
  • An assurance that any worker who retaliates against a complainant or witness will be properly disciplined.

The International Labor Organization drew up a sample policy on sexual harassment with details and explanations for each section.

Companies must challenge their employees to be part of the solution in preventing sexual harassment. Awareness, prevention, as well as responsible intervention will help create a safe and respectful workplace environment for all.