Although media coverage of the #MeToo movement has typically focused on public figures, the movement has also reshaped how companies handle and work to prevent sexual harassment allegations on a daily basis, with varying degrees of success, according to a recent study.
An increase in sexual assault allegations has caused company leadership to reconsider how employer and employee behavior affects the work environment.
Last Friday, Oct. 5, marked the one year anniversary of the publication of The New York Times report detailing a series of sexual harassment allegations that had followed Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for decades.
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The #MeToo movement, which gained prominence as a Twitter hashtag in October 2017, has evolved into a cultural revolution promoting justice for sexual violence survivors. It has helped topple rich and powerful men like actor Kevin Spacey, CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO Les Moonves, NBC "The Today Show" anchor Matt Lauer and CBS anchor Charlie Rose.
One-third of company executives reported changing their behavior during the #MeToo movement, according to a study released Oct. 4.
Johnny Taylor, Jr., the president and CEO of the human resource organization, said that many of these respondents changed their conduct to avoid making others uncomfortable if there was a possibility that could be the result.
“It’s really clear to say, these were not people who said they were engaged necessarily in inappropriate or even truly legal sexual harassment,” Taylor said. “But they said the perception is as important as anything, so they modified their behavior in response to it.”
Among these positive reactions, Taylor said the organization also received responses like “I will never hire any of them,” implying that the respondent would no longer hire women because of an unfounded fear of increasing sexual assault allegations. About 5 to 10 percent of the responses could be classified as extreme.
Taylor said that human resource department can use the data to “create better training interventions so that essentially there is no overcorrection or backlash to the #MeToo movement.”
Taylor also noted that “what people say is sometimes different than what they do.”
Chai Feldblum, the commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had a different opinion.
“That is clearly illegal,” Feldblum said. “Those people are putting their employers at legal risk. So it is a very short sighted and in fact dangerous response, as a matter of law.”
Feldblum added that often they “were the people who were not mentoring or hiring women before, and now they’re sort of using [the #MeToo movement] as an excuse.”
The EEOC has also released reports noting the positive impacts of the movement.
During the 2018 fiscal year—which lasted from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018—the EEOC filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual assault, a 50 percent increase from fiscal year 2017, according to an EEOC press release.
Feldblum said the #MeToo movement has helped women be “more comfortable to begin to come forward and to vindicate the rights that they have to work” in a professional sphere.
The human resource management survey found that 10 percent of respondents believed the zero-tolerance policies increasingly implemented by companies following the rise of the #MeToo movement were important in preventing sexual harassment.
Both Feldblum and Taylor cautioned that zero tolerance policies can be too strict. The policies often call for the dismissal of individuals whose conduct may be inappropriate but does not rise to the seriousness of sexual harassment. Feldblum said the right level of discipline might be something short of dismissal.
“We encourage employers to communicate that no act of harassment, however low-level, will be tolerated,” Feldblum said. “But then, send the message that incidents of misconduct, that after investigation, have been proven to be true, will receive timely and proportionate discipline.”
If the punishment is too harsh, it could diminish the reporting because often someone wants the conduct to stop, not for the person to be fired, she said.
Taylor said zero-tolerance policies can also hurt new, younger hires, who need time to adapt to professional culture.
“We’re trying to show them that the behaviors they engaged in May, just before graduation, aren’t acceptable in July in the workplace,” Taylor said. “And so that’s why training is so critical. These aren’t necessarily bad people, they’re just learning what it means to be working adults.