Beyond #MeToo: Re-examining sexual harassment in the workplace

By: Lynn Wooten, David J. Nolan Dean of the Dyson School
Chalk inscription on black chalkboard with hashtag Me Too

By Lynn Wooten, David J. Nolan Dean and
Professor of Management and Organizations at Dyson

In 2017, the #MeToo movement exploded on social media and sparked a worldwide discussion about the nature and pervasiveness of sexual harassment across all industries, ages, and demographics.

Since then, there’s been a global reckoning as we acknowledge the failings of our cultural scripts about gender, power, and politics. Not only have powerful men lost their jobs as a result, but the movement has also started to change the way we treat victims as a society. It has chipped away at the cultural norms and power structures that have protected men and kept women silent in the past.

In business, this shift has pushed companies to reevaluate the way they respond to sexual assault allegations and take action. After all, we know that sexual harassment allegations pose the single greatest threat to corporate reputation. This was the key finding of a 2006 study I conducted with my colleague Erika James, dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, titled “Diversity Crisis: How Firms Manage Discrimination Lawsuits.”

Sexual harassment has long been an issue in the workplace, but we’ve reached a cultural tipping point in which it’s no longer permissible to brush these allegations under the rug or use money as a way to silence victims. Today, business leaders have a choice: be proactive about protecting employees and stopping sexual misconduct within their organizations or wait to be called out and suffer the consequences.

In our recent whitepaper, “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Risk Without Equal,” Erika James and I re-examine our original findings amidst the sea of recent sexual assault allegations to account for what has changed and explore what happens next.

Giving victims a voice: The collective power of social media

When Erika and I researched the various types of discrimination lawsuits and allegations in the workplace back in 2006, we found that racial discrimination lawsuits were getting the bulk of the attention. However, when firms were accused of sexual misconduct, it took them much longer to accept responsibility and a disproportionately longer amount of time to settle than any other type of claim. Back then, there was more of a “blame the victim” mentality, and companies were more likely to spend legal money to dispute the claim or quietly settle before it garnered major media attention.

Today, our culture has changed. Social media and technology have helped bring women together and make them powerful. Within 24 hours of Alyssa Milano using the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter to encourage women and men to share their experience of sexual violence, the message had gone viral and reached 50,000 people. Social media has given every individual a voice and a place to share their story with anybody in the world instantaneously. The result is a powerful platform for collective action and social change.

In addition to new technology, there is also a new generation of women in the workplace. Wounds that have been passed down from one generation to the next are now coming to light. Empowered by the sheer volume of allegations and increased visibility in the media, women are taking a stand and refusing to tolerate this behavior for themselves or the next generation. As a result, we’re seeing increased pressure on organizations to take these allegations seriously.

Responding to sexual harassment in the #MeToo era

2017 taught us that no career was too big to topple. The sexual harassment scandals engulfing many of Hollywood’s biggest players including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Bill O’Reilly had an immediate impact on their careers and incurred inestimable costs to the studios and networks associated with them. In most cases, the response from these organizations has been decisive action to suspend the employment of these men on the basis of the accusation alone. This is sharply in contrast with what Erika and I observed in 2006, which may point to an acceptance of the scale and gravity of the problem in corporate America that aligns with changing public attitudes.

Not only do women make up a large portion of the workforce today, but they also drive 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing through a combination of their buying power and influence. In 2019, it is bad business to viewed as a “merchant of shame” because of an association with someone who engages in discriminatory behavior. Younger generations increasingly support companies that align with their personal values and treat all employees and customers fairly. Gillette is just one example of a company that recently made headlines for a campaign promoting the ideals of the #MeToo movement in an attempt to reach this growing segment of the marketplace.

Paving a pathway for systematic change

Despite shifting attitudes toward sexual harassment, the problem itself is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Beyond paying lip service to the cause, it’s up to business leaders to enact policies and systematic change within their organizations that address the route of the problem and create a pathway for real movement.

In our report, Erika and I found that there are a number of concrete actions leaders can take to combat and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, including:

  • Enacting clear and comprehensive anti-harassment policies
  • Ensuring harassment policies are communicated and accessible to all employees
  • Clearly defining what harassment means and the related processes and procedures
  • Enforcing measures to ensure the well-being of complainants—consider workplace safety measures such as schedules, workspaces, escorts, etc.
  • Sharing a statement underscoring zero tolerance in cases of retaliation against accusers
  • Committing to investigating all complaints fairly and transparently

It’s up to all of us to shift the paradigm and create the future that we want to live and work in. Now is the time for leaders in business to give future generations what they deserve—a workplace where everyone feels valued and safe.

For more information, you can read “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Risk Without Equal” in its entirety here.