#MeToo Battles Resistance in the Workplace

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The #MeToo movement has ended the careers of serial sexual abusers and shown millions of victims of sexual harassment and assault that they are not alone. Across the United States, many women feel more empowered than ever before in the fight to combat sexual violence.

But is this empowerment translating to the workplace?

Nearly three out of four women feel that the #MeToo movement has inspired them to speak up when it comes time to blow the whistle in the workplace, according to new research from VitalSmarts. However, 48 percent of survey respondents still have an incident of workplace harassment they haven’t shared, and only 34 percent feel safe addressing an incident of workplace sexual harassment or assault as it happens.

Action Over Empty Words

Of 1,100 respondents to the VitalSmarts survey, only 31 percent feel their organization has observed anything beyond minor changes in terms of sexual harassment policies. When victims of harassment see Hollywood millionaires being held accountable for their actions while inappropriate comments and actions go unpunished in their own office, they find it difficult to believe that their employer really cares about the safety of their workforce.

“To create substantial and sustainable reduction in workplace sexual harassment, leaders must change cultural norms, not just dish out piecemeal stopgaps and/or give lip service,” says David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts. “Disturbing behaviors happen more frequently in cultures where minor misdeeds are given a pass. If an employee makes a sexually offensive comment and bystanders say nothing, that silent acceptance sows the seeds for a culture that permits extreme behavior. What we permit, we promote.”

In order to create “environments where people feel safe to report bad behavior and have confidence that concerns will be handled fairly and effectively,” Maxfield recommends organizations create systems to hold leaders accountable on this point. Maxfield suggests companies regularly assess how much employees agree with the following statements via anonymous surveys:

  1. If I were harassed, I’m confident I could safely report it and that I would be treated with respect and fairness.
  2. Leaders in my department make it clear that they will not tolerate harassment or assault in any form.
  3. If I were at risk of being harassed, I’m confident my colleagues would intervene and stand up for me.

The results of this survey — and how those results change over time — can give executives and managers valuable insight into their corporate environments and the changes that still need to happen.

“Incorporate these results into performance objectives, reviews, and promotions,” Maxfield says. “Don’t promote managers whose scores fail to meet appropriate levels within a specific time frame. When managers know their success hinges on creating a safe culture, they will find ways to make it happen. Encourage every employee to sign a pledge to stamp out sexual harassment and misconduct. Signing a commitment improves accountability. These commitments work best when they are voluntary, public, and renewed periodically.”

Creating a Safe and Empowered Workplace

It’s important to create an environment where employees can speak up when they feel uncomfortable. Part of creating this environment means providing employees with skills-based training to help them learn that speaking up is encouraged and supported.

“There is often pressure to make training fast, low-cost, and painless,” says Candace Bertotti, senior master trainer at VitalSmarts. “This can turn the training into an information dump that forgets about important, deliberate practice. Providing information, without the skills to act, is a recipe for frustration.”

For training to be effective, Bertotti says, it must cover at least the following topics:

  1. How to coach, mentor, and meet one-on-one with members of the opposite sex without creating discomfort or running the risk of false accusations
  2. Teaching employees to address uncomfortable or awkward situations well before they rise to the level of harassment or misconduct
  3. Rehearsing the reporting process, including how to document, report, and escalate a problem
  4. Creating sanitized case studies that tell the story of how incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct are investigated, adjudicated, and punished.

#MeToo has changed public perception around sexual harassment, and many men in the workplace have begun to self-reflect as the movement brings the seriousness of sexual assault and harassment to the forefront. Forty-eight percent of men surveyed by VitalSmarts fear that they may have unwittingly done something in the past that could have been perceived as sexual harassment, while 19 percent actually wish they could apologize for past behavior.

“It’s always remarkable when a social movement causes us to rethink our own past behaviors — and to judge our earlier selves as inadequate,” Maxfield says. “Our study suggests these movements are beginning to have this kind of impact on men. The statistic that one in five men wishes he could apologize for his past behavior shows how far we have come. When you consider that men are less likely than women to judge borderline behavior as harassment, this statistic is all the more revealing of the potential magnitude of the problem. It could also suggest that there is rising awareness of what constitutes harassment.”

For everything that has shifted in corporate America in the last few decades, one business concept remains the same: Real change happens from the top down. Without full commitment from leadership, any company policy or initiative to combat workplace sexual misconduct will fall flat.

“In addition to teaching skills, organizations need to turn leaders into public champions for change,” Bertotti says. “Encourage formal and informal leaders to volunteer to become champions for eliminating sexual harassment and misconduct. Have these leaders — rather than HR — lead the initiative and any training in the workplace. Seeing leaders at all levels skillfully leading the charge shows the value they place on solving this problem, demonstrates commitment, and builds confidence that the changes aren’t isolated or lip service.”

Read more in Harassment

Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.