#NotHere: 5 Steps to Prevent Harassment in the Workplace in Wake of the #MeToo Movement 

November, 2018 - Tammy R. Bennett, Faith C. Whittaker

One year later, the #MeToo movement has caused a seismic cultural shift in American society and in the workplace. It continues to gain momentum and attracts wide-sweeping media coverage keeping the issue of sexual misconduct against women at the forefront of our national dialogue. For its efforts, the movement is poised to strengthen the enforcement of existing laws, spur enactment of new regulations, and most notably, to fundamentally change how women and men interact in the workplace. 

Recent EEOC activity is evidence of the movement’s success. In the year since the movement began, the EEOC filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, which is a 12% increase over fiscal year 2017. Similarly, it recovered $70 million from sexual harassment claims compared to $47.5 million in fiscal year 2017. The EEOC has made it clear that preventing sexual harassment claims is a high priority and is in the process of revising its guidance on the subject.

While #MeToo focuses on high profile claims against executives, celebrities, and politicians, the Time’s Up initiative has expanded the activism to low wage and blue collar workers. Since its inception, its legal defense fund has provided nearly $22 million dollars to cover legal costs for workers to pursue sexual harassment lawsuits against their employers. 

What can employers do to mitigate the risk of sexual harassment claims or of unwittingly cultivating a culture of harassment in their workplace? The following are five steps employers should take to prevent harassment and send a clear message: #NotHere.

1. Mandate a workplace culture of respect.

In addition to merely expressing their commitment to a harassment-free workplace, employers must take intentional actions to create and maintain a respectful work environment. To create and maintain a culture of respect, a company must know its core values and purpose. From there, employers should recruit, hire, retain and make decisions with those core values and purpose in mind. Management must bridge any gap between the levels by having clear expectations, effective communication, and a respectful and professional attitude. If employers continuously allow improper behavior and fail to take action, they can expect such behavior to continue to permeate the workplace. Employers must take a stance against disrespectful and inappropriate behavior and mandate that employees treat each other professionally and with respect.

2. Leadership must lead by example.

If the leadership of the company does not believe in a workplace culture of respect, employees will not either. The company’s executives and managers must lead by example. Leaders of an organization must make preventing harassment a priority and clearly voice that it will not be tolerated. Leadership actions can be symbolic and send a strong message to employees. The bottom line is that leaders want employees who are inspired to come to work, which results in a happy, productive workplace. If employees are experiencing harassment, it will significantly impede that outcome.

3. Have a receptive channel to launch complaints.

Employers must provide multiple ways in which employees may voice any concerns or complaints. Whether it is through a hotline, email, human resources or management, employees must have multiple places to go to present any complaint. Importantly, employees must be able to avoid complaining to the alleged harasser. Additionally, employees must be able to raise concerns without fear of reprisal and feel that they have an open channel of communication with someone in the company who can receive their complaint and effectively take action.

Employers should ensure that employees understand the complaint process and know of all avenues through which they may raise concerns. Employers should not simply provide employees with a 50-page handbook at the start of employment with the complaint procedure buried within. Instead, employers need to adequately provide the information to employees periodically and in a variety of ways.

4. Managers and employees must be trained.

Employees need to be generally familiar with the company policy against harassment and discrimination and the company’s stance against improper and disrespectful conduct. Employees should be trained on behaviors that foster respect and civility in the workplace, behaviors that are not consistent with the company’s expectations, the complaint process and where to go if they experience harassment directly, or as a witness. Employees must understand that the company will promptly investigate and resolve any issues without fear of reprisal for bringing the complaint.

Managers must know the company complaint process and the importance of anti-retaliation in responding to complaints. Managers should be trained in skills for addressing improper behavior, de-escalating conflict, and handling harassment complaints. Individuals within the company who are responsible for conducting investigations should receive skills-based training on how to effectively investigate harassment and other workplace concerns. Significantly, managers must be able to effectively end improper conduct and cultivate a culture of respect and professional behavior. Managers should also learn how to avoid liability and the legal ramifications of harassment in the workplace.

5. Employers must promptly and effectively respond to complaints.

Employers must promptly respond to harassment allegations by conducting an investigation and resolving any issues. Not only can this step provide employers with an important legal defense should litigation ensue, but it is a critical step in preventing any further issues internally. As soon as possible and without unreasonable delay, the employer needs to respond to the complainant to let him/her know that the employer will be looking into the complaint.

Following the initial communication, the appropriate person needs to conduct a thorough investigation and gather the necessary information and documentation. The investigator must interview the complainant, the accused and any witnesses. After collecting the pertinent information, the employer must take action to resolve any issues and close the investigation. It is important that employers keep an open dialogue with the complainant and communicate the status of the investigation to the extent possible given the circumstances. The complainant should not feel that the employer failed to act in response to his/her complaint.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, employers must send a clear message: #NotHere. Employers must take a stance against harassment and create a culture of respect. By taking proactive measures with respect to training and policies, it will help prevent harassment from permeating the workplace.

To learn more about the authors' work in counseling employers on how to cultivate workplaces free of harassment, click here.

To read their op-ed in the Cincinnati Business Courier on this topic, click here (subscription required).


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