Human Resources

#MeToo, Now What?

How to address workplace harassment — and why doing so is good for business.

I was working as a lawyer in private practice when the long-standing #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, went viral in the fall of 2017. I was preparing for a high-stakes trial between Uber and Google over their self-driving car technology, and was so focused on preparing exhibits and witnesses that I almost missed the breaking news cycle — until I started to get text messages from my friends and family telling me that my law firm’s name was in the news. 

When I turned to the internet to see what they were talking about, I found the initial stories exposing decades of sexual predation by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein — several of which explained that the chairman of my law firm, David Boies, was apparently representing him. But as troubled as I was by the news about my firm, my overwhelming feeling was one of reverence for the actresses coming forward to publicly share experiences that I too had had throughout my career — and that I too had largely remained silent about. 

Their stories inspired me to share my personal experience with sexual harassment as an 18-year-old Congressional intern, publicly for the first time, in the Washington Post. Shortly thereafter, the New Yorker broke the news that my firm had not only been representing Weinstein, but had also retained ex-Mossad agents to spy on the actresses in an effort to discredit them and prevent the publication of their stories — the very same stories that had by then sparked a global viral movement and inspired me to share my own story.

This series of events forced me to deeply consider the role that lawyers and leaders play in addressing workplace harassment. As millions of people around the world shared their experiences using the #MeToo hashtag, the movement exposed a systemic global problem with workplace harassment. At the same time, it demonstrated that existing policies, laws and systems have failed to root out the problem across almost every industry.  

That’s why, in January of 2018, I left my corporate legal job to launch the Purple Campaign, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing workplace harassment. Our mission is to prevent workplace harassment by implementing stronger corporate policies, establishing better laws and empowering people to create lasting change in their own workplaces and communities.

So how exactly do we do that? At the Purple Campaign, we’ve developed a four-part framework to guide leaders and employees who want to do something about this problem in their own workplace: Prevent, Respond, Rethink and Rebuild

1. Prevent harassment by creating  transparency and effective trainings. 

The first step is to prevent workplace misconduct from occurring in the first place, so that future generations don’t have to say #MeToo in the staggering numbers we saw last fall. Prevention involves two key components: increasing transparency and implementing more effective employee trainings

Transparency means being honest about the extent of the problem in your workplace, and accountable about what you’re doing to address it. A great example can be found in Uber’s recent efforts to “turn the lights on” by ending the use of nondisclosure agreements and forced arbitration for cases involving sexual harassment and assault, and being the first to voluntarily publish a safety report detailing the scope of the problem on its platform, and what the company is doing to address it.   

Trainings can create shared expectations about the type of conduct that is unacceptable in the workplace, but as #MeToo demonstrated, they have largely been ineffective at addressing the problem. Companies should implement more creative programs that go beyond legal compliance. One example is at Airbnb, where the company’s general counsel has developed an innovative in-person training that invokes the company’s unique values and trains its employees on policies related to topics like alcohol use and consensual workplace relationships.   

2. Respond appropriately by breaking down barriers to reporting and establishing fair process for resolving issues.

Recognizing that it’s not always possible to prevent every problem, the next step is to ensure that your organization is prepared to respond appropriately when issues do arise. Responding appropriately also involves two key components: breaking down barriers to reporting incidents, and establishing fair processes for resolving them internally.

Reporting of sexual misconduct remains a significant challenge, even in the #MeToo era. According to a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, approximately 70% of people who experience workplace harassment never report it to a manager or supervisor. Fortunately, new technology companies, including AllVoices, Callisto, #NotMe, Spot, tEQuitable and Vault, have emerged to offer innovative apps, artificial intelligence and online tools for reporting harassment anonymously and confidentially. 

Fair process is essential, because #MeToo revealed that many people who came forward to report sexual misconduct were treated unfairly. Internal investigation and corrective action procedures must ensure that an organization treats all complaints seriously and takes appropriate action to address the problem. While the response in each individual case will depend on the circumstances, companies need to commit to taking whatever action is necessary to ensure a productive, safe and empowering work environment for all employees moving forward.

3. Rethink the problem by addressing intersectionality and leveraging existing diversity and inclusion efforts.

Intersectionality is a critical component of addressing workplace harassment. Individuals with multiple legally-protected statuses are more likely to be targets of harassment, and research shows that women of color are not only more vulnerable to harassment, but also less likely to be believed when they come forward to report. As the dean of Boston University’s law school explains in her recent Yale Law Journal article on the topic, leaders must address #MeToo through a multidimensional lens “in order to capture the different ways that women across intersectional categories may experience any particular event or events.” 

Diversity and inclusion efforts, especially those aimed at creating greater gender diversity at the top, must also be leveraged as part of the solution. Research from the EEOC demonstrates that sexual harassment is more likely to occur in organizations with less gender diversity, and homogenous workplaces are more vulnerable to all forms of harassment. As a recent Harvard Business Review article put it: “We already know how to reduce sexual harassment at work, and the answer is pretty simple: Hire and promote more women.”

4. Rebuild the system by understanding the business case for addressing workplace harassment through corporate certification.

The business case for addressing workplace harassment has never been clearer. Research demonstrates that the mishandling of even a single sexual harassment complaint can affect a company’s public image, and, as the #DeleteUber campaign highlighted, a majority of consumers are now willing to boycott or seek out a certain brand because of its position on a social issue. Taking this issue seriously should be a no-brainer for any business leader, especially in light of the fact that women drive 70 to 80% of consumer purchasing in the United States — and 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives. 

Corporate certification programs have been used in the past to create shared norms and expectations to solve pressing social problems. Two examples include the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which standardized environmentally-friendly buildings, and the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates employers’ LGBTQ+ workplace policies. The Purple Campaign is partnering with major companies — including Amazon, Airbnb, Expedia and Uber — to develop a similar program to address workplace harassment in the wake of #MeToo. More information about the Purple Campaign’s corporate certification program — including how your organization can get involved — can be found at the nonprofit’s site.

Ally Coll is the President of the Purple Campaign, a nonprofit organization she co-founded to address workplace sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo. Coll is a graduate of Harvard Law School and previously worked as a litigator in private practice in Washington D.C., where she also spent time on Capitol Hill as an aide in both the U.S. House and Senate.

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