Reporting Workplace Harassment During the #MeToo Movement

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1Many of us were captivated by the sudden rise in awareness around the #MeToo movement last year, with the departure of high-profile newsmen and then earlier this year, Hollywood stepped in to create another round of publicity.

While #MeToo launched more than a decade ago, it took Hollywood to bring it into focus and raise nearly $22 million for the Legal Defense Fund to help women and men with legal fees.

I’m part of a women’s discussion group – similar to a book club with lovely food and wine, but we usually bring in a speaker and have a discussion on a topic – and we recently took on the #MeToo topic. Here’s some of what we learned.

The group is made up of working women in a wide variety of roles: from a real rocket scientist, to a librarian, to an IT specialist, to a human resources director. Most of the women are in their 40s, so they have a lot of work experience.

One of the ladies in the group shared her personal story about the topic and provided advice for others who may be facing sexual harassment in the workplace.

She’s worked in IT for more than 20 years and was used to being one of the few women in her group. Working primarily with men, she let a lot of “locker room-type” comments roll off her back. More recently she encountered several situations with female direct-reports that she could not ignore.

As a supervisor, she was legally required to report the harassment in the workplace. While she shared with human resources direct feedback from female employees who reported they were being harassed in the office, it forced her to examine her own role and complicity in contributing to such an environment in her lengthy career. She asked herself: “How did I let it happen and how did I let it go on for so long?”

A final incident by a male superior directed at her forced her hand, and she filed a formal complaint with human resources. In sharing her journey, she eventually left the company because working with the male superior was intolerable, she offered this advice to women and men who feel mistreated or harassed at work.

  • Keep a diary/log of every questionable incident. The log needs to be factual — date, time, what was said, who was present, etc. and leave out personal feelings. She had to create a backlog of the incidents she could recall and doing so was eye-opening. “I had prided myself on being able to hang with the guys, let locker room talk roll off my back, but when I went back and read my log, I was shocked at what I had endured for so long and I have a lot of guilt about that,” she said.
  • Have a backup plan. For her, she was able to leave the company because she had savings. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people. You should never wait to report if you are experiencing harassment because of financial restrictions. That said, having savings can cushion a departure. In her words: “You should have three to six months of savings in the bank when you file a complaint with human resources, as you may need to leave the company sooner than you expect.” 
  • Other important items before you quit your job: update your resume, begin networking and better yet, find a mentor who can help you navigate the job search. Of course, not every situation requires that you quit your job, but in case you do, be prepared.

Our human resources expert in the group shared these tips for people who may be dealing with harassment in the workplace.

  • Any employee can and should bring suspicion of harassment to human resources or their supervisor. It doesn’t have to be the victim; it often times is someone else who has observed the behavior.
  • Supervisors often don’t know how to handle a complaint and they might not even recognize that the employee is actually filing a complaint. Even if training is provided to leaders, it’s still best to always take a complaint to human resources.
  • Investigations can lead to a number of different outcomes: no findings so no action, termination, demotion, or smaller annual bonuses. In the interim, sometimes employees are transferred to another team or location.
  • One thing for employees to know: human resources is required to follow up/investigate any accusation even if the person who reported it doesn’t want them to. That isn’t the reporter’s call to make.

As marketing communications professionals who help clients manage their reputations, while we’re not human resource experts, we do advise clients to ensure they’re following all local and state laws surrounding their employees. Accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace can turn a company’s once stellar reputation into mud in an instant. It’s critical that all employers, large and small, have very clear sexual harassment policies in place and that they follow those policies to protect all employees in the workplace. When it came to light that CBS management had received complaints over a 30-year period of their newsman, Charlie Rose, the only course of action CBS could take was immediate dismissal. The #MeToo movement has forced all business and organizations to examine their own workplaces, and that’s a good thing.

As for the IT worker who shared her story, she’s started a new job and is happier than ever.

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