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#MeToo, Cultural Shifts on Sexual Harassment & Employers

When Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo Movement in 2006, she wasn’t looking to start a viral campaign; she was looking for lasting and radical change.  As she explained to Ebony last fall:

“It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. . . It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

She was looking for changes in our homes, streets, community centers and workplaces.  When actress Alyssa Milano used Burke’s term in October 2017, however, the hashtag did, in fact, go viral.  And any fears that a viral campaign might lead to a hear-today-gone-tomorrow mentality appear, at least for the moment, to be inapplicable.

Time Magazine recognized Burke, Milano and others — collectively called “Silence Breakers” as it’s “Person of the Year.”  And a coalition of actresses and film and media professionals started the related #TimesUp campaign which promises a series of ongoing reforms, including a legal fund to pay for lawyers to represent women with sexual harassment claims.  But the most significant accomplishment of these public campaigns may be the ways in which public opinion has moved when it comes to sexual harassment, particularly workplace sexual harassment, and what that means for employers.

What does this mean for employers?  A sexual harassment reckoning may be on the horizon.  The very near horizon.

Since the early 1990’s, research has consistently shown that more than 70% of workplace sexual harassment victims do not report what has happened to them — 72% in 1994, increasing to 75% in 2013, and holding steady at 75% as recently as 2016.   (In addition, other research suggests that people may experience sexual harassment but be unaware that it the conduct was sexual harassment or may be uncomfortable naming their experiences as sexual harassment; a 2015 survey found that 18% of respondents said they had not experienced “sexual harassment” but then in other questions confirmed experiencing specific behaviors that fit the definition).

For the 75% of people who acknowledge they experienced workplace sexual harassment but haven’t reported it, the reasons most often centered on fears that they would not be believed or would themselves be criticized.

But the #metoo movement may have changed all that.  An October 2017 poll indicates that approximately seventy percent of Americans now acknowledge that sexual harassment happens in almost all workplaces.  And a November 2017 poll indicates that approximately 85% of Americans believe those people speaking up about experiencing sexual harassment.  Thus, it is unsurprising that these recent reviews indicate that anywhere between approximately 50%  and 80% of victims of sexual harassment report may be more likely to report sexual harassment moving forward.

This has enormous implications for employers.  For twenty years, reliable research indicates that — despite widespread problems — employers have been the perverse beneficiaries of victims’ silence.  When instances of sexual harassment are brought to light, employers don’t just have to worry about legal liability; the revelation of sexual harassment problems in an organization also brings reputation/brand costs, time drain, and reduction in morale that — in turn — reduce productivity.  And now employers must deal with the fact that any expectation that things will continue on as it has before is grossly misplaced.

However recent polling indicates that it hasn’t yet sunk in for employers that they need to take the recent cultural shift seriously.  On the individual level, more than half of male respondents to a recent survey indicated that they hadn’t reflected more on their own behavior or attitudes despite the national discussion.  And more than 90% of respondents in one poll indicated that they believed that sexual harassment wasn’t a problem in their own companies and that, instead, this was someone else’s problem.  Relatedly, fewer than 20% of workplaces have taken steps to have even a conversation about sexual harassment at work — let alone hold additional trainings or update or adjust policies.  This despite the fact that employers have known for decades that sexual harassment happens but goes unreported at a rate of 3 out of every 4 instances.  The cognitive dissonance here is REAL.

But the math is simple.  Numbers don’t lie.  Again: at least 3/4 of victims of workplace sexual harassment haven’t reported in the past, and between 50-80% are more ready to speak up now.  This means that employers can expect to see an increase of anywhere between 35%-60% in reports of sexual harassment.

Again, it is reasonable to expect a 35%-60% increase in sexual harassment reports.

And employers should also expect that the colleagues and witnesses they might interview as a part of the investigation are going to take the situations more seriously and are going to be far less inclined to automatically disbelieve, discredit or minimize the complainants.  In addition, in a future piece, I’ll look at what these cultural shifts might mean for legal liability and how judges and juries react to sexual harassment cases moving forward.  Hint: employers should expect to face greater accountability.

Simply put, it is time for employers to take a long hard look at their written policies, their reporting and investigative procedures, and the quality and sufficiency of their trainings.  Research indicates that the vast majority of the policies are boilerplate — so disconnected from the realities of most employees day-to-day lives that the policies themselves are rendered meaningless.  In addition, research indicates that most sexual harassment trainings don’t work and that most employees find their trainings to be inapplicable, unmemorable, and entirely unhelpful.  This is particularly true for those trainings that are webinars or videos.  For trainings to be effective and meaningful,  research indicates they need to be done in person, in small groups, and allow plenty of time for attendees to practice real-life strategies like bystander interventions, conflict resolution, and being self-protective and assertive when they are in uncomfortable situations.

This moment should be a wakeup call for any savvy employer — for any wary employer.  Acting as though existing policies, reporting and investigative protocols, and trainings are good enough was silly.  Continuing to act that way, despite recent changes, is purposeful and/or feigned obliviousness.


* cross-posted at www.ramonastrategies.com.

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Katherine Kimpel

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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