Confronting Sexual Harassment

#MeToo movement is changing the culture

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

No doubt about it. Bad news travels fast. Especially reports like the jarring and despicable allegations of sexual harassment that were first reported in 2017 about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

In the aftermath of Weinstein’s case, the #MeToo movement was born and its reverberating effects exposed a laundry list of prominent men accused of sexual misconduct at work. A New York Times analysis conducted in 2018 found at least 200 prominent men had lost their jobs after public allegations of sexual harassment.

Yet, despite the precipitous rise of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment has not been erased in the workplace. The front pages of newspapers and associate websites continue to prominently highlight allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against well-known CEOs, elected officials, and performers.

Major Problem

Sexual harassment doesn’t just affect prominent public figures. It’s an issue that affects employees at all levels and within all types of organizations, companies, and industries. Findings of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s (ECI) 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey revealed that 28% of employees observed at least one incident of interpersonal misconduct, including sexual harassment, in the preceding 12 months. Moreover, 62% of employees who observed sexual misconduct revealed that the behavior was one of several incidents or was part of an ongoing misconduct. Perhaps the most disturbing finding was that 61% of employees indicated that the witnessed wrongdoing was serious or very serious.

Likewise, according to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year, 62% of Americans and a staggering 70% of women believe sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem. Moreover, 61% of women thought people were not sensitive enough to the problem of sexual harassment.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the Gallup poll indicated that the number of men who viewed sexual harassment in the workplace as being a major problem had declined from 66% in 2017 to 53% in 2019. 

What is causing men’s views to change? Gallup researchers surmised that perhaps the “preponderance of news coverage may have put men on the defensive. Or it may be that they had a strong reaction in the immediate wake of the Weinstein allegations and start of the #MeToo movement, but that they have become somewhat desensitized to the issue since then.”

Setting Standards

In December 2018, a year after sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein emerged, Bloomberg News reported that senior male executives avoided having one-one-one meetings with women for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. A Pew Research Center poll was also conducted in 2018 and the results revealed that 66% of adults 65 and older believed it is harder for men to navigate workplace interactions. The survey also indicated that 51% of the respondents believed the increased focus on sexual harassment and assault has made it more difficult for men to know how to interact with women at work. Only 12% said the interactions would now be easier.

Likewise, according to a survey released in June 2019 by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s, over half — 60% — of male managers say they are uncomfortable with being alone around women at work. Stefanie Johnson, a professor at the Leeds School of Business, surveyed more than 500 women from September 2016 to September 2018 and found that, “There’s this myth that women falsely accuse men of harassment, and this idea can hurt women at work. They’re less likely to get mentored, so they’re less likely to get a promotion or a new opportunity.”

Mentoring is important and personal meetings with supervisors and leaders are essential to build a career and climb the corporate ladder, especially for women. Since most executives are men, the negative impact of unintended shunning and avoidance by men could thwart a woman’s professional growth and advancement both personally and professionally.

How can ethical leaders create a culture that does not tolerate sexual harassment so that men and women can effectively work together as allies, mentors and mentees in the workplace?

There’s an old saying that “a fish rots from the head down.” Nowhere does this ring truer than within the context of a leader’s responsibility to foster an inclusive work environment free of sexual harassment. It is vitally important for ethical leaders to be the first to step forward and visibly set a standard of acceptable and inclusive behavior for employees to follow.

Direction by Example

Many pundits would say that these are rather obvious expectations for those who hold leadership positions. However, too many employees have worked under leaders who said all the right things in meetings or one-on-one discussions, but looked the other way at a critical moment. Inconsistent behavior enhances workplace sexual harassment and misconduct. ECI research found that employees who work in organizations where ethical leadership was lacking were three times more likely to observe incidents of sexual harassment in their work settings.

In the ethos of today’s #MeToo work environment, successful and ethical business leaders are fully aware that a mantra of “Do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t cut it. Ethical leaders clearly spell out organizational policies about dating co-workers, discouraging romantic relationships between employees in the same department, and forbidding such relationships between bosses and subordinates. Ethical leaders give direction to others by example, model appropriate behavior, and don’t say or do what they wouldn’t say or do in the presence of others.

Ethical leaders also promptly and effectively deal with allegations of sexual harassment. Employees who see their leaders “doing things right and doing the right thing” by promptly addressing sexual harassment allegations are more likely to report incidents of interpersonal misconduct to their supervisors.

Furthermore, ethical leaders are vigilant in proactively quelling workplace retaliation directed towards employees who report sexual harassment. Data from the 2018 ECI report indicated 76% of retaliation occurs within three weeks to six months after of a report of a compliance issue such as a sexual harassment complaint. Retaliation at the six-month mark is also common and typically occurs during annual performance reviews. Ethical leaders quell the fear and occurrence of retaliation by building a transparent reporting process that builds a “speak-up” culture.

The PLUS Model

One tool leaders can use to address sexual harassment and foster an inclusive work environment is the PLUS Decision Making Model. Created by the Ethics Resource Center, The Plus Model provides the following series of questions:

P = Policies and Procedures (Does this decision align with company policies?)

L = Legal (Does this decision violate any laws or regulations?)

U = Universal (Is this decision in line with core values and company culture? How does it relate to our organizational values?)

S = Self (Does it meet my standards of fairness and honesty?)

Finally, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, ethical leaders sagely look beyond the headlines and thoroughly understand that widely reported news stories of sexual harassment and misconduct are not based on a singular innocent or inadvertent comment that was later construed as offensive. Rather, the “real” stories behind the headlines typically depict men who intentionally, knowingly, and willingly abused their power and authority.

The #MeToo movement has the potential to enhance inclusive and productive work environments for men and women. Ethical leaders have a responsibility to lean in and eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace while seeking, forming, and supporting alliances of men and women with the goal to help all workers succeed and reach their full potential.