Most People Are Supportive of #MeToo. But Will Workplaces Actually Change?

By Candace Bertotti and David Maxfield, Harvard Business Review

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continue to create a tidal wave of media activity and increased awareness of sexual harassment and misconduct. But have they created positive changes in workplaces? Are people seeing healthy and lasting improvements in their organizations as a result of these movements?

To answer these questions, we asked 1,100 people in an online opt-in survey about the changes, if any, they’re seeing in their workplaces. The results are far stronger on promise than on delivery — showing that these movements have raised hopes, expectations, and some concerns. Now it’s up to leaders to deliver on the momentum and address some of the worries.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the respondents in our survey describe #MeToo as “healthy,” and 45% say talking about harm they are experiencing is now safer. In fact, 41% of the women in our survey know someone who has shared their story of harassment since these movements began, and 28% have shared their own story. However, about half of the women (48%) reported that they have a story they haven’t shared.

The men in our survey confirm the magnitude of the problem: Nearly half say they’ve done something in the past that today might be labeled as sexual harassment or misconduct.

Of course, the ultimate goal of these movements is to make workplaces safe from sexual harassment. Here the results are mixed. While 56% say there’s been some improvement, only one in three say the improvements have been more than “small.”

Only 19% of women and 23% of men say, “My workplace has provided additional training.”
Only 23% of women and 17% of men say, “I’ve seen tangible changes at work that increase my confidence the system will respond appropriately.”
Only 16% of women and 14% of men say, “My workplace has introduced new policies, procedures, or systems that make it easier for people to speak up when they have concerns.”
Our survey also found some adverse reactions. One-third of the women and half of the men say that, since the movements began, they know someone who has been wrongfully or excessively harmed by an accusation of sexual harassment. And 65% of men say it’s now “less safe” to mentor and coach members of the opposite sex. We received dozens of comments like the ones below:

“Managers are not holding females as accountable to policies as they should — giving them a pass for fear of being accused of gender bias.”
“Men and women are not talking to each other. The environment is becoming sterile and completely unenjoyable to work in.”
Reactions like these, especially if adopted broadly, jeopardize necessary teamwork, coaching, mentoring, and managing and undermine both inclusiveness and effectiveness.

What we found in this study presents an opportunity for leaders. To substantially and sustainably reduce workplace sexual harassment, leaders must thoughtfully and deliberately commit to changing culture — not just implement stopgap measures. Disturbing behaviors happen more frequently in cultures where misdeeds are given a pass.

Leaders must create environments where people feel safe to report bad behavior and have confidence that concerns will be handled fairly and effectively. Below are three ways we’ve seen companies do that.

Create a measurement system that holds leaders accountable. Consider evaluating managers by adding questions related to sexual harassment to culture or engagement surveys. For example, you might ask employees to rate their agreement with the following statements:

If I were harassed, I’m confident that I could safely report it and be treated with respect and fairness.
Leaders in my department make it clear that they will not tolerate harassment or assault in any form.
If I were at risk of being harassed, I’m confident my colleagues would intervene and stand up for me.
These three questions could also make up a stand-alone survey that staff complete about their managers. The results could then be incorporated into performance objectives, reviews, and promotions.

You can also encourage every employee to sign a pledge to stamp out sexual harassment and misconduct. Research has shown in other contexts that signing a commitment improves accountability, and there’s no reason to believe the tactic wouldn’t work in this domain. These commitments work best when they are voluntary, public, and renewed periodically.

Be public champions for change. Encourage leaders and influential employees to volunteer to become champions for eliminating sexual harassment and misconduct. Have these leaders — rather than HR — lead the initiative and any training you offer. Seeing leaders at all levels skillfully leading the charge shows the value they place on solving this problem, demonstrates commitment, and builds confidence that changes the organization is making aren’t isolated to specific units or teams and aren’t just lip service.

Go beyond information dumps to teach skills. There is often pressure to make training fast, low-cost, and painless, which means the focus is on dumping information (which is quick) over providing opportunities for deliberate practice (which takes time and skilled facilitation). Providing information, without the skills to act, is a recipe for frustration.

People need to know how to coach, mentor, and meet one-on-one with members of the opposite sex without creating discomfort or running the risk of false accusations. Teach employees to address uncomfortable or awkward situations well before they rise to the level of harassment or misconduct. Rehearse the reporting process, including how to document, report, and escalate a problem. Create anonymized case studies that tell the story of how incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct are investigated, adjudicated, and punished.

We recognize that eliminating sexual harassment and misconduct will require a multifaceted approach. These three strategies will help but they also need to be part of a larger effort. If you don’t hold leaders accountable, have people throughout the organization help lead the change, and give them the practical skills they need to address problems when they arise, you won’t see lasting change. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have created much-needed momentum. Now is the time for leaders to act on it.

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