Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected. PGHR Consulting is based in Pittsburgh. The location was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. Laura Dunn’s position at SurvJustice was unclear in an earlier version on this story. Dunn is founder of SurvJustice and attorney and managing counsel of DC for Fierberg National Law Group, PLLC.
In the fall of 2017, the #MeToo tidal wave had begun. Within months, amid thousands of shared, detailed stories of sexual misconduct and allegations of abuse of power in the workplace, some of the most powerful names in business, entertainment, and politics had fallen. People once thought impervious in their careers had gone by the wayside via a movement that was almost too large, and fast-moving, for some to fully comprehend. Executives, managers and other employees have made changes at work in response.
Nearly a third of 1,034 executives said they have changed their behaviors to a “moderate, great or very great extent” to avoid behavior that could be perceived as sexual harassment, according to recent research from the Society for Human Resource Management. About a quarter of 1,022 managers said they have changed their behaviors, according to the same research about the impact of the #MeToo movement.
“I think that it’s raised awareness of issues,” said Phyllis Hartman, Owner of PGHR Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that provides training, human resources development and guidance with employee relations. “The good thing is the increased awareness, that some people feel more comfortable speaking out about their own experiences.”
According to the research, 94 percent of human resources professionals said their company has a policy against sexual harassment. The research also showed that 72 percent of U.S. employees are happy with their employer’s efforts to fight sexual harassment. Despite that finding, more than a third of Americans believed their workplaces fostered sexual harassment.
The society, in messaging about the findings, noted that existing rules and training hadn’t been enough to prevent sexual harassment, and concluded that it would persist until employers change their culture.
Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, a survivor-focused legal organization, and attorney and managing counsel of DC for Fierberg National Law Group, PLLC, echoed that generally, organizations’ existing sexual harassment training had been inadequate.
“I think the workplace always had some awareness of Title 7, which is the federal statute preventing sex discrimination, but it was more of a ‘check the box’ type compliance, Dunn said. “The #MeToo movement, I think, made it real.”
Dunn said the most concrete lessons of the #MeToo movement may also be the lessons that people needed to learn in the first place, such as not mistaking the workplace as the best place to find dates.
Other lessons include core messaging, not just in the workplace, but during their most formative years.
“I think it’s a reflection on society maybe failing earlier, maybe K through 12 and college settings, to make sure harassment is frowned upon and deterred,” said Dunn. “Because those are opportunities to learn. Once you’re in a workplace, there are real consequences. And I think, as a society, we’ve too often allowed harassment to slide by, as ‘boys will be boys.’”
Perhaps one of the most notable elements of the #MeToo movement is the scale at which organizations were caught off guard by it. After decades of training days, classes, seminars, and workshops extolling the horrors of sexual harassment in the workplace, the issue was apparently as present as it had ever been. This led to some organizations revisiting their harassment prevention initiatives, as sexual harassment appeared to be happening at the highest – and most headline-grabbing – levels.
“I think the vast majority of my clients, who I think are certainly well intentioned, and work hard to create an environment, in a lot of cases, they weren’t aware that they were having a bias in terms of the management,” said Hartman, discussing how top-tier executives had been a blind spot for many organizations.
In cases where employees have feared backlash as a result of the #MeToo movement, Hartman has urged them to calm down and take things one step at a time.
“Two young managers in companies came to me and said ‘I’m afraid to talk to women now’ and ‘I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and be misinterpreted and misunderstood’ and both of these guys I’ve known for years and they are good people,” recalled Hartman. “I said to them, ‘well, it’s discriminatory if you don’t talk to women, because you need them, too.’ So, you’ve got to find a way to deal with this so you can communicate respect.”
Some older employees may be reluctant to change their behavior, Hartman said. Her advice to them is to look inward to see how their comments or behavior might be construed.
“They’re not doing anything egregious, they’re not doing anything that’s so bad that they should immediately be fired. … They’re not doing anything really bad emotionally to women, but they’re just not treating women in the same way they treat men with terms of respect,” said Hartman.
“They say ‘I’ve been successful and I’m not a bad person, I haven’t treated people badly all these years, but I’ve been doing these things, I’ve been telling these jokes or complimenting people in this way, why do I have to change now?’ And the point is that it was never OK, but nobody ever told them it was not OK. And women didn’t feel free to tell them it was not OK.”
Dunn also noted that part of the learning and training process towards sexual harassment is learning how to handle rejection when it may come.
“Being able to gracefully accept someone not being interested is definitely part and parcel,” she said. “And just accepting ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’m not sure’ and ‘I’ll get back to you’ at face value.”
For those who’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace, Dunn said a person needs to start keeping records of the incidents, as they will become an invaluable tool later.
“That’s the number one thing people fail to do, and it’s time, location, potential witnesses, and what’s occurred,” said Dunn. “We see a lot of victims if they are, say, harassed by text message or email, they’ll often delete the messages because they don’t want to see them, don’t want to think about them. But, unfortunately, if you do take legal action, those materials are necessary.”
Dunn advised that people create a log, talk to an attorney sooner rather than later, and go to HR as a first step.
Hartman said the organizations in which the staff gets along are the ones that thrive, succeed, and turn a profit which everyone shares in. The first step toward that kind of work environment is open communication.
“I think it’s sad that things have happened in the past,” said Hartman. “I think we need to work hard to try to change going forward and to communicate with each other. To be willing to say ‘you know, I don’t like this.’ To me, it’s common sense.”
Companies that want to prevent sexual harassment should make discussion more of a priority than it has been in the past, Dunn said.
“I would encourage them to make it part of their culture, and not just have this one-off day or two where there’s a training. It should be an ongoing conversation around ensuring respect in the workplace.”