Employers Take New Approaches in #MeToo Era

The #MeToo movement has caused a paradigm shift in the way employers fight workplace harassment, Jennifer Reisch, of Equal Rights Advocates, San Francisco, said Aug. 4 during an American Bar Association panel at its 2018 annual conference in Chicago.

The #MeToo movement focuses on acknowledging and preventing sexual harassment and rose to prominence in late 2017 after allegations of such misconduct were made against high-profile figures like Hollywood insider Harvey Weinstein.

In the employment context, there has been a shift away from thinking of harassment as something done by rogue actors. The problem is increasingly understood to be structural, Jenny Yang, formerly with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and now of Working Ideal, Washington, said.

As a result, workplace leaders are not focusing merely on compliance with federal and state laws, but also on what conduct is appropriate in a workplace, even conduct that isn’t technically illegal, Tracy Billows, of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Chicago, said.

But leaders won’t beable to solve the problem alone. Organizations should be on the lookout for ways to facilitate worker-led efforts to address harassment, too, Reisch said.

Broader Understanding

Part of the shift is an understanding that harassment is broader than just sexual harassment, Yang said.

Sexual harassment is the most common form, followed by race-based harassment, she said.

But pregnancy harassment is a common form of harassment that can result when employers don’t provide additional help when employees go on parental leave, Yang said. That can create animosity among workers and result in adverse treatment when the parent returns to work.

Simply understanding those forms of harassment, and what causes them, can decrease their likelihood.

Leadership Responsibility

Another major part of the shift is leadership responsibility, Billow said.

In recognizing that the problem is a structural one, leaders within the workforce are “stepping up” to change the culture around their workplaces, she said.

There has been a lot of focus on bystander intervention, so that the onus isn’t on the victim alone, Billows said. There’s been a kind of “if you see something, say something” approach, she said.

Leaders are also focused on revamping the training process, Yang said.

Previously, the focus was on compliance with the law, Billow said. Now, there’s more of a focus on the kind of culture that’s acceptable within the organization, she said.

Focus is also now on better and more frequent follow-up, Billows said. Not just with the victim, but also with the worker accused of inappropriate behavior to be sure they understand what’s expected of them and why, she said.

Finally, there’s an effort to rethink the complaint process, so that victims control what kinds of steps are taken, Yang said.

Technology is helping, she added. New programs allow workers to anonymously make complaints that are then time stamped. That allows the worker to make a contemporaneous complaint, but come forward when they are ready, Yang said.

Worker-Led Efforts

The next step is for organizations to support worker-led efforts to address workplace harassment, Veronica Girón, a janitor and union leader with the SEIU United Service Workers West, said.

Her workplace provided space and time for workers to promote laws that protected them in the workplace, she said. That’s been extremely helpful and the group is working on additional measures to address workplace harassment.

For example, Girón and several female coworkers developed a training curriculum to give other female workers. Training by co-workers is often a more effective kind of training because it allows you to connect on a deeper, more familiar level, she said.

But Girón urged organization to provide more support to worker-led efforts. As an example, even though her work gave her and her co-workers time to develop the training curriculum, she now provides the training on a volunteer basis. As a mother of two, that’s hard to do, she said. It’s hard to spend so much time away from her family for work without getting paid, Girón said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com