Long reads

After #MeToo, #WhatNext?

23 Aug 2018 By Emily Burt

It may feel like the dust has settled on sexual harassment, but for HR professionals dealing with complaints and recalibrating workplace culture, there remain as many questions as answers

To understand the complex duality of views that exists when it comes to the current wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations, it is worth considering two messages received by People Management from female HR professionals responding to a request for views and experiences from readers.

One detailed “unwanted sexual comments” that are largely unprintable but were received by one individual in her workplace, relating to her need for a “good seeing to”, among other insults. The other lamented the end of “good banter and fun”, concluding: “These days you are afraid to say anything… the whole thing has gone too far.”

To condemn outright harassment is easy, and necessary. But to untangle the multifaceted web of human interactions that make up an organisation, promoting inclusion and opportunity while also upholding fairness, is more complicated. Yet that is exactly what the months since the start of the #MeToo movement have been all about – and HR professionals have been on the front line. 

For employment lawyer Samantha Mangwana, a partner at CM Murray who specialises in sexual harassment and discrimination cases, #MeToo was an ‘unburdening’. Harassment in workplaces existed long before the movement took hold; but the unifying power of the hashtag, fuelled by social media, brought new recognition to issues that had previously been isolated. 

“People were coming forward to lend credence to accusations, so those women would be believed and their stories justified,” she says. “There was a catharsis – often people had kept stories a secret as they didn’t see the value in pursuing what was already a difficult situation, and thought ‘why make it worse?’” 

This is a significant change. Traditionally, says Mangwana, harassment would be a background issue to matters of dismissal, maternity leave, or failure to promote. Harassment and assault place a heavy burden on the individual, who must prove their case in a system where complicated situations are often reduced to ‘he said, she said.’ 

But since last December, when “seemingly unrelated issues and events started to topple like a row of dominoes”, Mangwana has been contacted by both women and men in increasing numbers. In particular, she sees instances of free-standing harassment that have a career-limiting impact: “Situations where people can no longer work together because the harassment was so awful… they are cases that could have come in before, but more people are ready to come forward now.” 

She has also seen an increasing number of women engaging with and calling out harassment in their organisations, something she describes as “completely different to the entirety of [her] practice until now.” 

“When female clients come in to complain about discrimination they are switched on to the issues in their firm. They know whether they have been through training or not, they know about their pay data,” she says. “Equally, organisations dealing with these issues are much more acutely sensitive – you could say in a cynical way – to the adverse PR of getting this wrong.” 

But while the dialogue may have inspired debate and left greater numbers of people feeling empowered to share their stories of harassment, the value of #MeToo will only be reflected in the progress organisations make in changing workplace behaviours for the better. An online survey from People Management carried out in August found almost 75 per cent of respondents had not altered any policies relating to sexual harassment in the previous six months. More than half (58 per cent) said their workplace culture had not improved as a result of increased scrutiny on sexual harassment-related issues – suggesting relatively few organisations are taking practical actions.

People Management surveyed 197 readers – both male and female – to find out the truth about harassment in the workplace

One of the biggest challenges for individuals is actually being willing or able to report offensive or potentially illegal behaviour. Under-reporting of harassment is rife, with research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in March finding roughly half of more than 700 people who had experienced sexual harassment at work failed to report it. 

That reluctance – experienced by both women and men – is attributed to a lack of appropriate procedure, uncertainty over who to approach, and little confidence in complaints being taken seriously. There is no easy answer, but the confidentiality and responsiveness allowed by technology is emerging as a key tool. And the universities sector, which faces complex power dynamics that have placed it at the forefront of #MeToo, is leading the way.

Report and Support, a digital reporting platform developed in partnership with the University of Manchester, is now in use by multiple UK universities, with 20 more due to sign up this year. Targets of harassment, including both students and staff, can report it (anonymously or otherwise), access advisors who will help them understand the options for progressing their case, or be signposted towards external support services such as Rape Crisis UK. 

“The process has to be straightforward, and acknowledge that some people just won’t feel able to say anything anonymously, let alone come forward as a survivor or a victim,” says co-founder Gemma McCall, who plans to take the platform to other industries.

Crucially, the platform gathers data so universities can keep track of any trends. As a result, anonymous reports that are harder to progress to resolution can still be put to practical use developing preventative campaigns. “We wanted prevention, not just cure,” McCall says. “If someone submits a report, it means that something has happened already. Of course, you want to be able to respond to that – but a lot of universities are using the insights to drive longer-term change.” 

For technology platform Mogul’s Safety @ Work reporting tool, the priority is ensuring reports are seen by the right people. Organisations that subscribe can select multiple stakeholders to receive reports, ensuring they reach those in power. 

It’s a nifty solution – but the catch is that third-party tools lack any legal power to oversee resolution. This responsibility lies in-house – which means persuading organisations to confront the uncomfortable reality of sexual harassment within their own workplace cultures. 

“People did not want to think this was happening in their organisation; they could not believe it,” Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Business In the Community, told a women and equalities committee hearing in July, recalling the ‘shock’ of business leaders at data showing 12 per cent of women had experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment in the last three years.

Nawrockyi is not alone in her experience. “I ran a workshop in May on sexism and harassment in the workplace, and invited the HR directors of companies where I had previously coached women who wanted to learn how to manage it,” says Dorothy Dalton, CEO of 3Plus International, which tackles gender issues in organisations. 

“None of them came. I later approached one of them to say I had worked with women in his organisation, and he said ‘it can’t be true.’ If it’s not reported, it’s not happening as far as they are concerned.” #MeToo will only be so useful, she adds, without the addition of sustained and broad culture change – something that will not take place without an attitudinal shift from HR departments, which Dalton says can be part of the problem. 

“I have coached hundreds of women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace, and very often HR have refused to support them or take them further, particularly if the man in question is a key player in the organisation,” she says. “One client had 24 complaints against a gentleman who is still in post, with no action taken.” 

David D’Souza, the CIPD’s membership director, has been in conversation with HR professionals across sectors as they consider their actions and responses to #MeToo, and has witnessed a range of responses to the issue. “There have been interesting conversations about people modifying their behaviour, and difficult conversations about appropriate standards. Some of these have been constructive, and some have highlighted the gaps in people’s attitudes,” he says. 

“There’s definitely an ongoing problem with narratives along the lines of: ‘This is ridiculous… I can’t hug a colleague’. If you were going to hug a person, and knew that would make them uncomfortable, that’s no more or less appropriate inside or outside a workplace. Whether you ‘get away’ with these behaviours is not within the bar of acceptability.”

While it’s no small feat to address and reverse cultures of harassment that may have persisted for years, as far as D’Souza is concerned, it’s a challenge the profession cannot afford to put aside. 

“It’s an understandable human response when confronted with an accusation of abuse to think about the consequences. Quite often we are talking about senior people in these organisations perpetrating it, which is a very difficult day in the office for an HR practitioner,” he says. “It’s a huge and demanding challenge to tackle ingrained dynamics and senior leadership teams, but if you just try to make a problem go away, the message you send to the individual and the organisation is that this is considered acceptable behaviour.”

For some organisations, the prospect of tackling reports of harassment is too much to take on alone, and they opt to turn to external expertise for assistance. Alison Love, managing director at Resolution at Work – which provides independent investigation, mediation and dispute resolution services – says this decision depends partly on capability. 

“Involving independent parties in managing harassment depends on the organisation – if they are geographically spread enough that they have trained mediators who are practising regularly, they can be helicoptered in and seen as neutral and dependable enough,” she says. 

“But there’s a danger of people dabbling dangerously, who perhaps have done a small amount of mediation training but are not fully accredited, or don’t utilise those skills regularly. That can often do more harm than good.” 

Love is candid about the fact that some instances of harassment would never be appropriate for mediation. However, in some cases it can help unpick an issue before it progresses. “Sometimes, in instances of so-called ‘low level harassment’, an alleged perpetrator will have no understanding of the impact of their behaviour or conduct, and no intention to harass or create a hostile environment,” she says. “The individual simply wants that behaviour to stop and for the impact to be understood.” 

In other organisations, moving from a culture of cure to prevention is taking place through policy – with mixed results. Following the news that actor Anthony Rapp had accused film and TV director Kevin Spacey of making sexual advances, the artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre, Vicky Featherstone, workshopped 150 different stories of assault to create a code of behaviour to prevent sexual harassment and abuses of power in the industry. 

This has resonated as a specific and organic way to tackle the issue. The advice includes telling employees “it is never appropriate for someone in a junior role to be asked by someone in a senior role to work outside hours in their private home,” or to “recognise the blurred boundaries between work and social spaces.” It calls on staff to fight ‘bystander effect’, calling out inappropriate behaviours and easing the burden of proof on the individual. 

“You could do this anywhere. With law firms, for example, there are specific ways to think about those environments – late nights, one or two people alone in the office together, a competitive culture that ironically is not dissimilar to the Weinstein environment, where junior people are desperate to please and powerful individuals hold all the cards,” Mangwana says.  

“Those are the very features of these abuses of power. Why shouldn’t we sit down and thrash out where those lines should be drawn?”

But it’s a fine line between sensible advice and being over-zealous. Netflix recently made headlines after an on-set runner described its new workplace behavioural policy. These much-mocked rules include a ban on employees 
making eye contact for more than five seconds, giving "lingering" hugs, and asking for a colleague's phone number.

“Highlighting types of behaviour you might not realise make people uncomfortable is an important conversation, but attempting to codify interactions between people is almost impossible,” D’Souza says. But he adds: “I respect the intent and would rather we have more companies like Netflix trying to do something constructive, rather than saying ‘what a PR disaster, we won’t do anything’.” 

And in some ways, driving behavioural change means being prepared for a backlash. A Pew Research Center survey published in April revealed that 51 per cent of respondents thought the spotlight on sexual harassment had made it harder for men to know how to interact with women at work. Another survey by Lean In found the number of male managers who felt uncomfortable mentoring women had more than tripled to 16 per cent in the wake of #MeToo.

It could be argued that as senior men have not been engaged, or have not engaged, with the issues, they have revolted in sometimes perverse ways. US vice president Mike Pence is not the only leader who refuses to be in a meeting room alone with a woman – the principle is reportedly common in Silicon Valley.  

 “I have very little personal sympathy for people on the side of power saying ‘what happens if I’m falsely accused?’ because that is the smallest issue right now, and I can’t think of any other area where you would expect the response of investigation, care, enquiry, and seeking out justice, to be avoided simply because people might get it wrong,” says D’Souza. 

At the same time, there will always need to be a balance. While victims of harassment must be supported, it’s equally important that HR takes steps to ensure individuals accused of harassment are not simply tried in a ‘court of public opinion’. The number of false harassment claims may be minimal, but the cost of an error – as Cliff Richard’s recent court victory against the BBC demonstrates – can be significant.

“When these are such awful and serious allegations there needs to be fairness and a sense that justice is being done, or you can have serious and high value cases on both sides,” Mangwana warns. 

And while a watershed moment is an important part of any process of sustained change, the measure of impact in a movement such as #MeToo rests heavily in the actions that are taken afterwards.  

“It’s a battle,” Dalton says. “One reason I set up my company was because my daughter experienced exactly the same sexist behaviours I saw in the workplace during the 1980s. There are strong generational differences; generations Y and Z are far less tolerant of bad behaviour, but it’s up to us to be drawing those lines and saying ‘no more’.” 

As the women and equalities committee pressures the government to bring in a statutory code of practice on preventing harassment at work, and Wall Street introduces a ‘Weinstein clause’ that forces companies to disclose allegations of harassment ahead of mergers, #MeToo is evolving. However it develops, HR has a responsibility to be involved, D’Souza says, as it speaks to the very heart of the profession. 

“The point of the job is not just to make sure we have a policy in place, or to be sure we have the right statements about culture; the point at a very base level is to make sure people coming to work are safe, protected, and can flourish,” he says. “We can’t pretend we’re getting on with a different day job, because this should always be the most important thing”.

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