Following revelations about the extent to which movie producer Harvey Weinstein was able to sexually assault vulnerable young employees, the actress Alyssa Milano suggested all the women who’ve been sexually harassed write ‘Me too’ on their social media status to reveal the sheer magnitude of the problem. Article by Judith Twycross, Clinical Manager – Validium.
The result is that hundreds of thousands of people have decided to become the generation that ends sexual harassment, in a way that has profound implications for employers. For too long, cultures of silence have existed around sexual harassment at work. Figures released by the TUC showing that even though two-thirds of 18-24 year olds have been sexually harassed at work, 79 per cent chose not to tell their employer. Some feared it would impact negatively on relationships with colleagues. Others were too embarrassed to talk about it or thought they wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The power of the #MeToo movement is that with so many voices speaking out at once, there is now a shared sense of outrage that this has been allowed to go unchecked for so long. Women, the media and 300,000 men (who have also used the hashtag to identify themselves as victims) have been reminding one another that ‘no incident is too small’. Once upon a time, a woman might been left wondering if her boss lunging at her in a lift was really that big a deal, as she managed to get away. Now, social media has harnessed experiences like that woman’s – and their lasting effects – to say that yes, any action that violates your dignity, or makes you feel intimidated, humiliated or degraded, is a big deal.
The days of being worried about ‘making a fuss over nothing’ are ending and there is a new attitude of universal zero-tolerance towards sexual harassment emerging. Not only should this encourage more people to report inappropriate behaviour so that it can be dealt with, but it should also encourage more people to stand up for themselves as and when things are happening, instead of having to go away and think about whether or not they have a right to feel affected.
Zero-tolerance for sexual harassment
Now that so many employees and former employees themselves have expressed an overwhelming unwillingness to suffer in silence, it’s imperative that employers also get on board. The days of employers turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour by those who are considered to be ‘too valuable to the business’ or ‘too powerful to challenge’ are over.
As Weinstein’s demise shows, no-one is too powerful to avoid being held accountable for sexual misconduct. With the mounting allegations against Weinstein putting him at risk of criminal convictions that could carry a 25-year jail sentence, and the many payouts made by Weinstein and Co. in return for the silence of victims being investigated, can a strategy that puts the career of one individual over the wellbeing of so many others ever be justified?
I think not. Especially now that the company is having to consider selling and changing its name to survive. Even so, I fear there will still be many more occasions when managers will be tempted to turn a blind eye to the young executive who complains about a lecherous client trying to grope her. Does the business support her and have words with the client, or tell her “not to make a fuss” and “just deal with it”, on the grounds that he’s a top paying client?
Although this should be a no-brainer, one of the main reasons a culture of silence has persisted around sexual harassment at work for so long is that when faced with everyday dilemmas like this, it’s all too easy for the business to prioritise the valuable client, the top sales performer, or a senior leader. The result is that when women see other women not having their concerns addressed, they think reporting sexual harassment won’t make any difference, so end up leaving, only for another unsuspecting victim to take their place.
Following #MeToo, far more people are becoming educated about their rights in this matter. They know that they have the weight of the law on their side, and that if they report an incident but the business continues to knowingly place them in situations which puts them at risk of more unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate touching, they have the right to file charges and seek compensation under the 2010 Equality Act.
Renewed commitment and education
Going forward, employers must accept that putting employees at risk of sexual harassment is not only unlawful but also immoral. Now is as good a time as any to formally relaunch your organisation’s position on sexual harassment and publicly educate managers and employees on what is and isn’t acceptable. Informing them what policies are in place to deal with this – including who victims can talk to in confidence, the process for dealing with complaints and the consequences for those found breaking the rules.
To be effective, this has to have the backing of a senior business leader and to be seen to be coming from the top. Senior business leaders must also be encouraged to nip any untoward behaviour in the bud as and when it happens, be it inappropriate comments they hear about employee’s appearances to rape ‘jokes’ or other instances of ‘humour’ being used to disguise inappropriate comments or behaviours. For too long, humour has been used to belittle the experience of those experiencing sexual harassment, with victims being told to “lighten up”, “see the funny side” or “develop a sense of humour.” Leaders are critical to changing a culture that might have encouraged sexism to go unchecked before.
Employees should also be made aware of where they can go to get the emotional and practical support needed to open up about any sexual harassment they might be experiencing. Be this the opportunity to talk to a professional counsellor removed from the organisation, via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), dedicated individual in HR, trade union contact or national charity helpline. Important as the #MeToo movement has been for clarifying the extent to which the problem persists and shouldn’t be tolerated, employers also need to play their part, taking proactive steps to make sure sexual harassment at work finally becomes a thing of the past.