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Diversity & Inclusion

#MeToo: Amid backlash & rising claims, businesses should still strive for harassment-free workplaces

The #MeToo movement did not begin in 2017, but its viral spread as a social media campaign began at that time to showcase the prevalence of sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. Businesses were galvanized into shoring up their sexual harassment policies, training modules, and investigative protocols.

Some companies made headlines by banning forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims, such as Google, following a walk-out of about 20,000 of its employees in 2018, and several other sizable and recognizable corporate entities made similar moves.

McDonald’s Corp. recently announced it dismissed its CEO, Steve Easterbrook, over a recent consensual relationship with an employee, which the board determined violated company policy. Easterbrook stepped down from the company’s board as well, admitting his mistake and saying in an email to employees: “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.”

Scrutiny of such top executives and their treatment of employees has intensified amid the #MeToo social media movement that erupted after Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was ousted and legally charged following press reports of alleged abuses, which he has denied. In June 2018, Intel Corp CEO Brian Krzanich resigned after an investigation found he had a consensual relationship with an employee that breached company policy.

Further, several states have enacted legislation that outlaws the non-disclosure agreements that have hindered employees from filing claims, naming perpetrators, and sharing their stories publicly.

#HimToo & gender stereotypes

But then came #HimToo, which some people referenced to remind the world that men have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse, while others invoked it to highlight what they perceived as a growing number of false accusations that victimized men.

And some companies had some questionable responses following their own #MeToo sexual discrimination complaints and settlement agreements with employees, like accounting behemoth Ernst & Young (EY).

According to press reports, EY hired an outside vendor to offer a training program that made gender-stereotypical assertions to the women attendees, such as “have a good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type,” while also advising “do not flaunt your body — sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”

For more on this subject, listen to a recent Thomson Reuters webinar, #MeToo & Effective Strategies in Investigating Sexual Harassment Claims, featuring Julie DiMauro.

The training also said that “women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup, so it’s hard for them to focus.”

(Note: EY has said it disagrees with the way the content of the seminar is characterized in the Huffington Post story in which it was first unveiled. The company also says the course is no longer being offered in its current form.)

#MeToo backlash: Why it’s real but surmountable

A January New York Times article featured interviews with executives who were attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It showcased a telling fear among men in continuing to work closely with female colleagues, especially more junior ones.

The piece described a growing apprehension among male executives of mentoring younger women and spending any amount of one-on-one time with them, because, as one of them stated: The issue is “just too sensitive.”

A 2018 study by noted that 60% of male managers said they’re also uncomfortable mentoring and working one-on-one with female colleagues, and noted a new discomfort with socializing with women in general.

Also, in-house and law firm counsel have reported greater incidents of gender discrimination claims over the last two years at the businesses in which they work. Some of these inevitably included meritless assertions.

This was decidedly not what the #MeToo movement was meant to do, as mentorships and senior leadership sponsoring relationships are helpful to professionals seeking to move up in their careers, particularly women in male-dominated fields or within male-dominated upper management positions.

False accusations don’t advance the cause of discrimination and harassment-free work environments for anyone, male or female. Yet, pretending that a rise in baseless claims somehow defeats the purpose of keeping workplace atmospheres respectful and equitable — the goal of corporate codes of conduct, local and federal laws, training tools and investigations — is hardly an intelligent response.

False accusations & corporate responses

False accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment have always existed. The remedy is not sexually segregated workplaces or ending integral business networking and mentoring arrangements, as they help junior employees and foster critical on-the-job training and leadership transitioning.

Instead, a plausible solution is a thorough investigation of all complaints of harassment to not dissuade those with viable claims from coming forward — nor to deprive the business an opportunity to jump on a claim (by conducting investigations) that might not be isolated and could later prove reputation-harming.

But the workplace should also include an honest discussion about appropriate punishment for those that did not just get the legal or in-house policy definition of harassment wrong but purely and simply lodged a false or frivolous complaint.

There should be disincentives for wasting the company’s resources and for making it harder for the next person bringing a viable complaint to be believed.

The article was written by Julie DiMauro, a Regulatory Intelligence Expert at Thomson Reuters in New York.

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