“Me too” and the Workplace
Although the “Me too” movement seemed to launch overnight last October, the movement actually came into existence more than a decade ago, founded by Tarana Burke. As someone who had experienced sexual assault, she identified the power of the words “Me too” as words that could empower women. She coined the phrase to help women and girls, particularly those of color, who had also survived sexual violence.
The movement exploded last October when multiple high profile men were accused of sexual harassment and assault. While some assert the continued sparks and outbursts nearly a year later stem from attention seekers, there is no denying the light this movement has shed on the centuries-old problem of sexual harassment.
“The #MeToo moment has shifted social attitudes, inspired widespread calls for change and resulted in unprecedented accountability. But the revelations about the pervasiveness of harassment — and of the legal and institutional failures to address it — illuminate how tough it will be to extinguish,” noted Jodi Kantor in the New York Times in March.
So, what does all of this mean for the non-celebrity, everyday working world? As society becomes more aware of this topic, employers cannot afford to turn a blind eye or in any way trivialize the situation. Every employer must take seriously the need to be proactive in protecting their workers and providing avenues for addressing situations should they arise.
While very graphic conduct is easy to identify, what may be happening in your workplace is likely to be far more subtle. For instance, situations involving—
- Sexual jokes, innuendoes, and gestures
- Comments about a person’s appearance, dress, or body
- Unwelcome flirtations or advances even if joking or subtle
- Terms of address like “honey,” “baby,” or “sweetheart.”
- Intrusive questions or comments about a co-worker’s personal life or sex life
- Any unnecessary and unwanted physical contact such as touching, rubbing, or hugging
- Display or transmission of sexually suggestive electronic content
The recent wave of accusation has found many companies with either non-existent or very dormant and in-need-of-review sexual harassment policies. Now, that revising and reviewing has risen to a priority level. As it should.
“These policies are now including sharper enforcement ‘teeth,’ objective investigation mechanisms, and more severe disciplinary penalties for those determined to have behaved in an unacceptable and harassing manner. Many organizations are demonstrating that no one — especially so-called high-value or high-profile employees — is exempt from even the most drastic disciplinary action if found to be in violation of harassment policy. These are upsides to the #MeToo movement,” states Bettina Deynes, Interim Chief Human Resource and Strategy Officer, Society for Human Resource Management.
New York State and New York City recently passed new laws regarding sexual harassment training. Vermont also passed recent legislation relating to sexual harassment. It’s imperative every employer be vigilant about the specific laws in their state and be on the lookout for updates and revisions to existing laws.