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.