United States: Viral #MeToo Campaign Highlights Prevalence Of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Five Ways Employers Can Work to Establish Harassment-Free Workplaces

Over the past few weeks, more than 40 accusations of sexual harassment (and in some cases, sexual assault) have unfolded against Harvey Weinstein, a high-profile and influential filmmaker and producer. Many of Weinstein's accusers were women actresses, including big names like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie, who claimed that they were harassed while working with Weinstein on his various film projects.

Soon emerging in the wake of this scandal was the social media sensation: the #MeToo campaign inspired by actress Alyssa Milano, who worked with one of Weinstein's alleged victims, Rose McGowan. On October 15, 2017, Milano used her Twitter account to ask those who had "been sexually harassed or assaulted [to] write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." By October 19, 2017, more than 1.4 million tweets were tagged with the #MeToo hashtag as well as more than 13 million Facebook posts and comments1 Participants shared their personal and painful accounts of harassment, which ranged from unwanted catcalling to rape and sexual abuse. A tremendous amount of those stories described workplace harassment, highlighting its lasting prevalence.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64 percent of Americans (up from 47 percent in a 2011 poll) feel that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem, and nearly one-third of women say that they have experienced sexual advances from a male co-worker2 Of course, sexual harassment affects employees of all genders, and harassment for any reason can have a significant negative impact on employee morale and productivity. As such, employers should work hard to maintain a safe, inclusive and productive workplace, as it is vital to cultivating a successful workforce. Below are our simple suggestions for employers to help establish an anti-harassment workplace:

  • Tip No. 1: Update harassment policies. Ensure anti-harassment and retaliation policies and reporting procedures are updated and, at minimum, compliant with state and federal laws. Make sure handbook provisions do not discourage employees from reporting potential legal violations to government agencies.
  • Tip No. 2: Set up an anti-harassment hotline. Hotlines are relatively inexpensive and require little time to implement, but can be an effective mechanism for gathering employee complaints. The hotline should allow employees to confidentially and anonymously report incidents of harassment, discrimination or retaliation. The hotline number should be listed in the appropriate employee policies and/or handbooks and, if possible, on the company's intranet and website. Critical to the effectiveness of a hotline is a company's procedure to investigate all complaints in a timely manner. See Tip No. 4 below.
  • Tip No. 3: Train employees. Employers should provide training to employees in supervisory/managerial roles regarding how to identify potential workplace harassment and retaliation and handle complaints when reported. Non-supervisory employees should also be trained on how to identify potential harassment and retaliation, as well as how to report suspected harassment.
  • Tip No. 4: Establish effective internal investigation procedures. Employers should create procedures that protect the confidentiality of the reporting employee and provide interim protection, e.g., a schedule or supervisor change, while the investigation is pending. If investigations are handled internally, employers should ensure that human resources representatives and in-house counsel are trained on how to conduct an impartial and thorough investigation. As appropriate, companies may seek the advice of outside counsel to ensure objective investigations.
  • Tip No. 5: Encourage an "open door" culture. In addition to stating the existence of an "open door policy," employers can set specific hours for employees to bring concerns or complaints to managers assigned to them and to human resources professionals. Further, while employee policies and/or handbooks should establish a "chain of command" for employees to report complaints, this should not be rigid. A complaint process is not effective if employees are required to first complain to their supervisors about harassment, because the supervisor may be the alleged harasser. When possible, the employer should designate at least one official outside an employee's "chain of command" to take complaints, for example, a human resources professional.

Footnotes

1 Alyssa Milano on #MeToo campaign: “We are going to be vocal until this stops”, ABC News (October 19, 2017).

2 A Majority of Americans Now Say that Sexual Harassment is a “Serious Problem”The Washington Post (October 17, 2017).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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