By Jon Gilligan and Sophie Vanhegan - 28 February 2018
Since accusations were made against Harvey Weinstein, there has been a fundamental (and long overdue) shift in how harassment in the workplace is perceived and managed. The #metoo movement is causing employers and employees to reassess workplace behaviour and we have already seen a number of senior executives leaving high profile organisations with Raj Nair of Ford the latest example.
The challenge for employers is to eradicate inappropriate behaviour whilst not sanitising the workplace and creating an environment where, for example, a manager will not take a junior colleague of a different sex out for a coffee for a business discussion.
As reported in Canadian publication The Globe And Mail, a recent pool undertaken by the Angus Reid Institute* highlights the differences of opinion that exist on this issue and how difficult the challenge is for employers. That pool explored differing views not just between men and women, but between different age groups. It revealed the following:
In terms of experience of sexual harassment at work:
- 52% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.
- 28% of women said they had experienced non-consensual sexual touching (including everything from touching to rape).
- 22% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, with 14% saying they had experienced non-consensual sexual touching.
- Millennial men and women hold the most differing views of what is acceptable in the workplace.
- Women aged 18-34 hold "stronger views on both attitudes and behaviours" compared to their male counterparts, want men to change, have less patience for excuses and less room for forgiveness.
- By contrast, the survey suggested that men aged 55 and older are more in line with women of all ages, which challenges the perception that baby-boomer men represent the greatest problem.
The survey also looked at different perspectives on what action should be taken to prevent sexual harassment:
- 80% of women reported taking some kind of action to prevent or avoid sexual harassment. Of those:
- 36% said they "embraced" such strategies because prevention is ultimately their own responsibility.
- 37% said such strategies are necessary but wish they didn't have to use them.
- 27% resented using them as women should not have to take measure to prevent sexual harassment.
This is just one survey, but it demonstrates the differences of opinion in this area.
So what are employers considering changing in light of #metoo?
Many businesses are now re-examining their Harassment/Relationship at Work policies and making those policies expressly deal with behaviour that could be considered inappropriate, such as:
- Prohibiting an employee from “asking out” another employee more than once, to avoid unwanted approaches.
- Placing an obligation on staff to report any inappropriate interactions they witness between fellow colleagues, failing which they may face disciplinary action (to tackle cultures whereby potential witnesses clam up when allegations of harassment are made for fear of it harming their position).
- Some larger employers are also training up a dedicated team of managers to act as specialist hearing managers to deal with allegations of harassment, and thereby improve consistency across the business in imposing appropriate disciplinary sanctions.
- Another cultural impact is that employers are reassessing the risk in dismissing alleged harassers with incomplete evidence as opposed to keeping them in the business (and potentially offering the complainant a settlement package to leave). With increasing public scrutiny the risk balance is shifting, with many businesses now more concerned about the PR risk of not dismissing a harasser than the legal risk of dismissing with incomplete evidence.
- Where a complainant does leave under a settlement agreement, their lawyers are likely to now push harder for carve-outs to allow them to make disclosures about their experiences if there are subsequent complaints by others against the same perpetrator, and also refuse to agree to wording in the agreement under which the individual confirms that no harassment has taken place.
Ultimately businesses will need to be creative and think about the environment they want and how best to achieve this. In all likelihood a combination of update policies and training will be needed. However, beyond that there will need to be leadership – more than ever, senior people in organisations need to set the tone.
*The online poll was conducted over five days in late January and involved a representative randomized sample of 2,004 Canadian adults from members of the Angus Reid Forum.