In 2006, social activist Tarana Burke began using the term "Me Too" on MySpace when asking African-American women to share their stories of sexual abuse. Eleven years later, actress and activist Alyssa Milano responded to the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein by suggesting on Twitter that anyone who had been sexually assaulted or harassed include the hashtag #MeToo in tweets that acknowledged their own stories. Weinstein, who was accused of sexual assault by numerous actresses, joined Bill Cosby , Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and others who faced accusations of their own.
Soon, the #MeToo movement spread as women from all industries came forward with their own stories, resulting in a series of new or modified policies aimed at identifying, preventing and eliminating sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
While some senior executives may scoff at the need for new policies, due to the #MeToo movement, they often embrace these enhanced anti-harassment policies due to the protection they offer employers from lawsuits. But any policy that's created for or judged by its litigious protection may miss targeting the true benefits of a work environment that embraces fairness, diversity and opportunity for its employees, says Jamie Dokovna, an attorney with Becker & Poliakoff in Miami. "The less comfortable you feel, the less effective you'll be. If you're constantly worried about what your boss is going to say if you end up alone with him in an elevator, you're not going to be as focused on your job as you should be. To address that is just good business," Dokovna says. "HR may set up their standards to eliminate abusive employees when they have the chance and then settle with those employees who've been harassed. That's not smart policy. That does nothing to advance the culture or to build a stronger company. It's reactive when it should be proactive."
Many sexual harassers or abusers -- both companies and individuals -- talk to the press and use social media to offer apologies, as well as promises to change course. Last year, Bank of America placed an ad in several newspapers and websites that was written in response to public reaction after Omeed Malik, a 38-year-old managing director, was fired after a female analyst complained about his inappropriate sexual conduct. The ad stated that "[Bank of America] invests in women at all levels of our company because it is the only way to ensure we have the most talented teams we need to work with our clients and to operate in the communities we serve," and was signed by Brian Moynihan, Bank of America's CEO.
Malik later accepted a multimillion-dollar settlement from Bank of America after accusing the bank of using sexual harassment charges against him to retaliate for complaints he made about his former boss.
Ann Marie Painter, an attorney with Perkins Coie in Dallas, says that feel-good statements and open-letter marketing campaigns are only helpful when policy matches propaganda. "If a firm wants to set itself apart from others by highlighting the value they place on their female employees, they need to have procedures in place to back it up," says Painter, who heads Perkins Coie's Workplace Harassment Taskforce.
Documented guidelines and enforced policies not only provide some reassurance to current or potential employees, they also help protect a firm from itself. "Human relationships are complicated and messy so you're going to run into issues," Painter says. "So how are you going to respond? How is your company going to respond? Will you have to rely on a manager with a certain bias or blind spot or can you always, always, always count on the company's policy to protect you?"
Painter says company policies should outline the processes to identify, address, rectify and eliminate problems. "Remember, the policy is permanent. The words are permanent. They're no one's friend or boss. They don't change based on the situation," Painter says. "When written effectively, the words are what count."
Dokovna agrees that words do count, but not just in policies. "What the #MeToo moment has done has allowed women to utilize their own voices as warnings to others," she says. "Women head into jobs today with their eyes wide open. If they feel any hint of sexual harassment, they will call it out, at least that's the hope. I know we're not there yet. But it's coming. Soon, they'll not only call harassment out but they'll call it out at the top of their voice. They'll call it out in very public ways and perhaps most importantly, they'll call it out by name."
Burke, the originator of the movement, agrees. She said in a Ted Talk last year, "We have to re-educate ourselves and our children to understand that power and privilege doesn't always have to destroy and take. It can be used to serve and build. ... And we have to re-educate ourselves to understand that, unequivocally, every human being has the right to walk through this life with their full humanity intact."
Same problem, different location: Harassment outside the office is still harassment
Sexual harassment has never been limited to work hours, particularly in work environments that are dominated by men. "A lot of partying after work goes on -- events at bars or restaurants where everyone's guard is down and the opportunities for harassment are multiplied by 100," says Stephanie Davis, an attorney with Maynard Cooper Gale's Labor and Employment division in Birmingham, Alabama. "There's pressure for women to be out there, drinking with the guys, telling stories, dancing with each other or the men in the office. And it's all in good fun, right? Just co-workers letting off steam. But that's when things get out of hand."
Davis says harassment in a restaurant or bar can be less obvious than at work, which can make it even more difficult for women to come forward. "Inappropriate behavior in a quiet office is going to be amplified if the right people are present. In a bar, it may just sound like part of the scene, part of what happens. But it's not. Ever," Davis says. "People say, 'hey, that was on our own time.' Fine, if that's your defense, fine. But don't think you won't be held accountable. Don't think the women you say lewd things about or the women you lock into extended hugs or the women you casually, jokingly touch as they walk by are assuming it's OK. Because they're on their own time, too. And they don't choose to get harassed on their own time. That's you. You made that call. And you should suffer the consequences."
New York-based law firm Phillips and Associates has outlined five ways women may be harassed at company events, including:
1. Unwanted and unwelcome touching
2. Inappropriate gifts of a sexual nature
3. Making inappropriate sexual remarks or propositions
4. Making employees play party games that make them uncomfortable
5. Inappropriate or sexual remarks about an employee's appearance
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