How can employers respond proactively to the #MeToo movement?


Need to know:

  • Despite the publicity of the #MeToo movement, problems with sexual harassment in the workplace remain widespread.
  • Getting the basics in place, such as a policy all staff are familiar with, is the first step in addressing the issue.
  • There are also wider cultural moves employers should make to make sure that communication is open and the balance of power in the workplace is equal.

Stamping out sexual harassment in the workplace is a difficult job, but one that employers and HR teams must confront, particularly now that the spotlight is firmly upon them following the #MeToo movement that went viral in autumn 2017.

From an ill-judged remark to full-blown assault, workplaces can be a hotbed for sexual harassment. Almost two in three women have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to the Trades Union Congress’ (TUC) August 2016 survey, Still just a bit of banter?

Despite seismic recent events, including #MeToo, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Time’s Up movement, there has not been enough change in the workplace, says Scarlet Harris, women’s equality officer, equality and strategies department at the TUC.

“What has changed is a public understanding about the scale of the problem, and also perhaps women are feeling more able to speak up than before,” says Harris. “However, I am not sure how much this is translating into speaking up in the workplace.”

So, what can employers do to be proactive, take a stand against sexual harassment and make the workplace a safe place to speak?

Time’s up

Claire McCartney, co-director of inclusive talent at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), says: “Employers should establish robust frameworks and policies to counter any potential harassment or discrimination against women or men, including unconscious bias, and these policies need to cover every aspect of employment, including recruitment and selection, training, and promotion.”

Establishing a clear complaints process and communicating it to all staff is key. Every employee should know who to speak to, and line managers should be trained and confident in implementing policy and addressing concerns.

Keeping sexual harassment policies current and using plain English rather than legalese are two ways of making them more likely to be read and understood, says Sandra Wallace, an employment partner and law firm DLA Piper’s UK managing partner.

Education and communication

It is important to lay the official groundwork in a comprehensive manner, but it takes more than policy for an organisation to count itself as fully prepared and proactive.

“Having a policy in itself is neither legally nor culturally enough, in my view; if you are not careful, it will sit in a drawer,” warns Wallace.

“[Employers] have to show that it has been brought to everyone’s attention, that [they] have trained people on what it means. This doesn’t have to be heavy-duty, it can be online training or induction training on bringing it to life. It has to sit against messaging from the top about how important this is, how people are expected to be respectful.”

Employers should also consider the benefits they offer, which can be used to enhance and support harassment policies, and to cement the message that the organisation is available and willing to support its employees.

Tali Shlomo, people engagement director at the Chartered Insurance Institute, asks: “How quickly can an employer put counselling on tap? Before [they] have gone through internal formalities, [employers should] think about offering counselling to anyone who is going through a difficult experience.”

Get everyone involved

It is important that all employees participate in training, from the lowest to the very highest ranks of an organisation.

“That way, there is a common understanding of what sexual harassment is,” explains Harris. “I think a lot of people aren’t necessarily aware of how widespread it is, because they are not seeing it and they are not understanding the impact.”

“It can be useful to provide the statistics showing the percentages of women and men across the workplace, and their sector, who have suffered sexual harassment, as well as the percentage of people who have not reported harassment,” suggests Lewis.

However, cynicism can still arise among individuals who have never witnessed or experienced sexual harassment, and it can be difficult to shake this kind of attitude with bare facts alone. Instead, personal and emotional hooks should be added into the training, where possible.

“One of the most effective tools for getting cynical employees on board is for employees within the [organisation] to share their experiences of things that have happened to them on an anonymous basis,” says Lewis.

In confidence

Confidentiality can be difficult. If an employee speaks to a manager or HR, the knowledge they have is then generally deemed to be held by the company. If they discover that something serious has happened, but do not take action, they can be held liable if the behaviour is repeated.

Lucy Lewis, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, explains: “As a general rule, it is better not to agree to confidentiality. For example, if an employee asks to speak in confidence, it’s preferable to explain that it’s not possible to guarantee confidence before you know what will be said, but you can confirm that you won’t do anything without speaking to the employee first.”

Offering a third-party whistleblowing helpline can help if employers are concerned about complaints going unreported. This can reassure employees that their concerns will be treated anonymously. Helplines will also steer victims toward other important resources.

Cultural shift

An imbalance of power, exacerbated by certain workplace norms, such as heavy drinking cultures, can underpin many women’s experiences of harassment.

If an organisation’s environment is likely to heighten the chances of harassment, it follows that it will not be a supportive place for an employee after they have experienced such behaviour, and in turn lodged a complaint.

Improving communication, education and training should not only reduce the incidences of inappropriate behaviour, but also help workers feel less vulnerable in the aftermath. It must also be made clear, as part of this communications strategy, that lodging a complaint will not damage an employee’s position or reputation, and that their experiences are valid and their problems will be dealt with appropriately.

“Sexual harassment is a very isolating experience, it is humiliating and degrading, and you don’t want to share it,” says Harris. “By making it a collective problem, [organisations can] have a stronger voice.”

Gender does not, of course, have to be part of the foundation of a relationship of trust between an employee and a manager, and in an ideal world would not be a factor, but the reality is that it can be integral in such delicate, personal situations.

Therefore, it is also important to consider the talent pipeline. If women do not appear to progress, female workers may well assume that the organisation does not value them as highly as their male counterparts, and that it will not support them if they speak out.

In turn, the presence of women throughout an organisational hierarchy is more likely to create a space in which female employees feel comfortable speaking to a member of management. This ensures that both women and men who experience harmful behaviour are able to find safe individuals to reach out to.

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