HOW TO HAVE A CONSTRUCTIVE CONVERSATION ON #METOO WITH THE C-SUITE

By Jordan R. Turner | Associate
and Sabrina E. Lim | Summer Law Clerk

Practice Tips

  • Understand the #MeToo movement as it applies to your workplace;
  • Have an open, constructive conversation about #MeToo without blame or judgment;
  • Have Human Resources update policies to address the issues of sexual harassment; and
  • Ensure that such policies are applied consistently throughout.

The inception of the #MeToo movement and the increased efforts by women to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault has led to an avalanche of complaints of misconduct against powerful and successful men, often leading to their termination. Although the #MeToo movement has been around for years, it only recently started garnering national attention—largely because of the high-profile women who accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment in October 2017. The significance of the #MeToo movement’s growth is not that it stems from an increase in workplace misconduct, but from a surge of empowerment within women compelling them to speak up about it.
In response to #MeToo, companies have begun grappling with the competing interests of their rank and file employees and executives. Further, some companies have found that their male and female employees have varying viewpoints on how to combat sexual harassment, often stemming from their own individual interests and fears. For example, many male employees, although genuinely repulsed by the horrid stories of harassment and misconduct that have come out, are also worried that the wide net being cast by the movement could unjustly capture them, or lead to an overregulated workplace. This has caused some male employees to wonder if they should police themselves by avoiding contact with their female colleagues altogether, an approach that could lead to many other problems. However, in response to self-policing by male employees, female employees must grapple with both pervasive harassment from some, and avoidance and career-stifling ostracism from others. Thus, companies must devise a strategy for rooting out harassment and fostering a healthy workplace, without putting female employees on the sideline and further entrenching power imbalances. This article will discuss how companies can best strike this balance.
First, companies should focus on reforming its sexual harassment training to be more effective by adopting an open-ended discussion format, rather than a lecture. This format encourages the development of small group discussions that are meant to accomplish two pivotal goals that training videos cannot: (1) Fostering open communication between employees and employers; and (2) Compelling participants to actually internalize how to promote respect within the workplace. Thus, small groups should be encouraged to discuss the concerns of both employees and management, with the focus being on ways to cultivate mutual respect within the workplace. Importantly, the training session should be an on-going dialogue, and, therefore, must be updated frequently. It is critical to follow-up and ensure the effectiveness of the measures being taken.
Companies must understand that workplace harassment can be a spectrum of inappropriate misconduct, and behavior that some would consider innocuous could and quite often does land companies in major trouble, especially where the behavior is a part of what will be described as a “greater toxic work environment.” Therefore, anti-harassment policies and trainings should address more than just the most obvious examples of harassment and abuse. Policies must make clear that offensive conduct of all kind will not be tolerated. Such policies must be clearly articulated and enforced by executives and employees at all levels and Human Resources, and supported by the innovative training techniques discussed above.
Further, this open-dialogue training style should acknowledge that #MeToo encompasses more than just workplace sexual harassment, as the movement is spurred by the same power dynamics that prevent women’s advancement in corporate America. Thus, companies should focus on developing a workplace environment that seeks to undo the power dynamics that stifle women’s advancement, before these issues are publicly aired in a lawsuit. In order to achieve this, companies must commit to engaging with male employees in a thoughtful, non-accusatory manner, as this is the best way to ensure that harassment is prevented, and non-harassing men do not resort to alienation of their female colleagues.
The #MeToo movement was the start of a cultural revolution that has empowered women worldwide and has shifted companies’ focus to issues that have long pervaded the workplace. It is nearly impossible for organizations to ignore the profound impact of the movement, and doing so jeopardizes their reputation and bottom-line. As the #MeToo movement continues to grow, companies must look to the future and develop a strategy to prevent this problem from continuing, not just adopting a stance against sexual harassment, but also embodying it. Further, companies should keep in mind the numerous and varying interests that their employees have as it relates to harassment prevention. Accomplishing anti-harassment objectives will require a reevaluation of the effectiveness of pre-existing training methods, and the adoption of a more modern and flexible strategy. In order to truly internalize this new direction, companies must have a strong sense of the sentiments and perspectives that pervade their workplace. This can be done by fostering discussion and dialogue on a regular basis. For more information on how to implement an effective sexual harassment policy, feel free to contact the employment attorneys at Brown Law Group.

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