#MeToo: Is Your Organization Protected From Discrimination and Sexual Harassment?

By: Dawn Watkins Wiese

In February, I was contacted by a vice president for human resources at a large, global company who confided in me, “We can’t be the next #MeToo!”
The weeks immediately preceding this call were filled with #MeToo movement news—from major Hollywood players to multinational corporations—and as individuals resigned, their careers and our nation’s landscape were forever changed. #MeToo became part of our vernacular, and it’s an issue that associations must face too.

She went on to say that her board members wanted to know that the company was protected. As the vice president responsible for HR, this fell squarely on her shoulders. She had a project in mind and asked how I could help her prepare for the next board meeting.

I outlined some of the questions she should be able to answer, including questions about the clarity of her corporate policies, use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), and ongoing staff education at every level, for example. She paused and replied, “A bigger project may be in order.”

Every organization must protect itself from actions such as discrimination and sexual harassment. Thinking you are protected and being protected are two very different things. And when something like the #MeToo movement is in the news, the chance of someone coming forward with a concern is more likely.

Experts note that when communities are better educated and awareness is heightened, more cases are reported, likely due to a climate perceived as receptive to concerns and complaints. So, where should you begin as you protect your organization?

Address Policies

A starting point in assessing organizational preparedness is an examination of your written policies. What documents are provided to all employees upon hiring, and what is emphasized in the orientation process? Is there any online orientation for employees? Does it emphasize sexual misconduct policies? Is this education offered at all levels of the organization, including C-suite and full-time or part-time employees?

As part of this training, expectations regarding both personal and professional social media must be clearly communicated. For example, while most may assume that jokes or memes that denigrate someone else are inappropriate in the workplace, is it acceptable within your organization for an employee to have that on his or her personal social media account?

Furthermore, are there different standards for employees at different levels of the organization? Does an entry-level staff person have more leeway in his or her use of social media than someone in a more senior position?

Maintain Ongoing Education

Next, do you have ongoing education on this topic along with other organizational HR resources and policies? This kind of education can happen online, through speakers, and through passive education, like flyers posted on bulletin boards. A simple online search under the header “sexual harassment in the workplace flyer” produces many good options.

Then, assuming an issue arises, what are your investigation procedures? Do you have arbitration and remediation avenues prepared? Are employee rights in such processes clear at the outset? Do you have NDAs in place should an agreement be reached? These steps must be taken proactively and not put off until a situation is unfolding.

Assess Organizational Climate

While having these pieces in place allows you to demonstrate some due diligence in addressing thorny issues like harassment and discrimination, an additional step to consider is assessing the overall climate of your organization.

How are orientation and ongoing education received? Consider an anonymous survey to provide a high-level picture that can reveal any underlying issues you may not be aware of.

Then, consider intentional focus group discussions with staff at all levels by an independent, qualified outside facilitator. The need for an outside, impartial perspective is a must. Otherwise, you run the risk of not appearing authentic in your desire for constructive feedback. Some things to consider when selecting an independent facilitator: Does the individual have significant focus group facilitation experience, understand qualitative research and how to triangulate this data, or have a bias or stance related to sexual misconduct?

Thinking about how to frame these questions and conversations with a would-be consultant are important prior to the hiring process.

Finally, you should compile all of this information to present to your board members. Having this data plus education and resources does not mean you will avoid a workplace harassment issue, but it could establish that you have a demonstrated interest in protecting your employees at all levels of your organization. And from a board perspective, you will have made your leadership aware of some good work undertaken to protect the organization’s future.