When Alyssa Milano took to Twitter in October 2017, she could hardly have anticipated the effect her hashtag would have. Her attempt to draw attention to sexual harassment through the hashtag #MeToo has snowballed into a worldwide movement, forcing all of us to take stock of the way women are treated every day.
Where so many women stayed silent for years regarding any kind of sexual harassment in the workplace, #MeToo has given women the confidence to speak out. With the pressure now on employers to re-evaluate their policies, #MeToo has turned what was once a token HR exercise into a moral imperative, giving businesses an impetus to protect employees and guarantee their wellbeing.
How #MeToo Changed the Conversation
While sexual harassment hardly originated in 2017, one of the biggest successes of #MeToo was in highlighting the failure to accurately present sexual harassment statistics. The day following the original tweet urging women to come forward with their experiences, the term #MeToo was tweeted over half a million times.
In the wake of this movement, various surveys and reports have been carried out in order to better understand the severity of the issue. In the UK alone, a survey conducted by the BBC revealed that 50% of British women had experienced sexual harassment at work with 63% of them having never reported the incident due to fear of further harassment, or even dismissal. The #MeToo movement, therefore, has been a driving force in breaking the culture of silence that affects so many women.
The effects of these positive changes are being felt in industries all over the world. As the culture and the conversation surrounding sexual harassment shifts, workplaces and HR processes will have to shift along with it in order to keep their employees safe.
Employers are now seeing more disputes and grievances including sexual harassment claims. This has been followed by a significant number of claims in the Employment Tribunal that include sex discrimination – as shown in annual Employment Tribunal statistics.
Incorporating #MeToo into HR
Though #MeToo never started as a commentary on workplace issues alone, the ties to the Harvey Weinstein scandal inevitably led to a much greater emphasis on workplace harassment.
Of course, legislation covering workplace harassment does exist, and it is considered a form of sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Unfortunately, as evidenced by #MeToo, legislation alone has proven ineffective in combating these issues, and encouraging women to come forward.
For employers, anti-harassment HR processes should have two outcomes: to create a workplace culture in which employees are educated, where sexual harassment is considered unacceptable and does not happen; and secondly, to have the best possible processes in place to deal with any allegations as and when they are reported.
Of course, it’s never easy to find the right solutions to such sensitive issues, particularly in this emotionally charged climate. Thanks to #MeToo, however, there are lessons to be learnt and steps employers can take to provide a workplace free from harassment.
Attitudes and Behaviour
Employers are legally obliged to provide employees with a safe workplace and should also take steps to ensure that sexual harassment doesn’t occur in the first place.
The only way in which this is possible is through the changing of behaviours and attitudes and to create a culture in the workplace that is free from harassment.
In order to truly educate employees about what behaviour is expected of them, it’s necessary to provide thorough anti-harassment and equality and diversity training. Unfortunately, harassment can evolve from misunderstandings or miscommunications as well as deliberate behaviour. In the U.S. alone 46% of men admit they don’t know when it is acceptable to compliment a female co-worker.
Training can be used in conjunction with company policies and handbooks, providing an emphasis on equality and diversity for employees, managers and supervisors. While these individuals will need to be trained to assess their own behaviour, they will also be prepared and ready to manage any allegation of sexual harassment.
Ultimately, changing attitudes and behaviours in the workplace is as much about mitigating risks as it is about creating accountability for those who choose to behave in an unacceptable manner.
Reporting and Support
One of the greatest successes of #MeToo has been to provide proof of what many people knew all along: that sexual harassment happens regularly, but so often goes unreported.
It is vital that every employer has an effective, swift and supportive process for reporting sexual harassment that is consistently followed, regardless of who is involved in the allegations. Creating a supportive environment for the person reporting the incident is a vital part of the process, as this can help shape their experience going forward.
This means that when someone comes forward with an allegation of sexual harassment, the most important thing is for the employer to demonstrate that any claims are taken seriously and investigated fully as well as take steps to support their wellbeing during the investigation process too.
If your staff see you taking allegations seriously and investigating fairly, it will go a long way towards demonstrating both the unacceptability of these types of behaviours and ensuring staff feel confident reporting future bad behaviour.
Though it has been a year and a half since the original tweet was posted, the movement continues to appear in headlines, and more and more women are coming forward after years of silence.
Though HR processes will and should change in accordance with this shifting climate, #MeToo has mandated that the victims of sexual harassment be heard and supported. For employers, this means creating a positive environment and working to educate staff, so that every employee can feel safe in their place of work.
This post was written by Pam Loch, Managing Director of Loch Associates Group in Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and London – employment specialists working across various disciplines including employment law, HR consultancy and health and wellbeing.