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What we can do about #metoo

paper with me too written on it

Almost every woman I know has a #metoo story.

You don’t have to be an aspiring actor, a Congressional aide or a network news anchor to be the target of sexual harassment. It can happen anywhere, and all too often it happens in the workplace or involves a co-worker, often a man in authority.

Sadly, I have a #metoo story — and I’m sure many of you do, too.

Sexual harassment takes many forms. Sexist “jokes” and innuendo. Degrading stereotypes. Unwelcomed advances. Uninvited physical contact, escalating to sexual assault.

It’s against the law. And It’s very, very common.

A 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report on workplace harassment found from 25 percent to 85 percent of women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment, depending on how harassment is defined.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll in October 2017 reported that 54 percent of all American women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” at some point in their lives. Thirty percent of women have endured such behavior from male co-workers and 25 percent identified men with authority over their careers as responsible.

The price

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 singles out two types sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employment decision — a promotion, an assignment or keeping your job — is based on a person’s submission to unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

The other form of sexual harassment is conduct that makes a workplace intimidating, hostile or offensive. This includes unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors or offensive comments about women in general.

The price companies pay for ignoring a culture of sexual harassment goes far beyond legal consequences. Sexual harassment strikes at the heart of gender equality initiatives. It can jeopardize a victim's emotional and mental health, damage self-esteem and cause significant stress for the victim and her co-workers.

Among those who’ve experienced unwanted workplace-related sexual advances, ABC News reports, 83 percent say they’re angry about it, 64 percent felt intimidated and 52 percent say they were humiliated.

Zero tolerance

A zero-tolerance policy backed by leadership and clear procedures for reporting harassment will help cultivate a workplace that nurtures respect and opportunity for all. The Society for Human Resource Management offers these best practices for ending harassment at work:

Develop and practice a good anti-harassment policy. If your employees aren’t aware of the policy — and what exactly constitutes unacceptable behavior — it’s worthless.

Have a multi-option complaint policy. If there isn’t more than one way to report harassment, a harasser may stand between the victim and her ability to report it.

Investigate the conduct. Whether or not a formal complaint has been filed, all alleged harassing conduct should be investigated. Don’t ignore office chatter or off-hand remarks heard at a networking or off-site event about possible sexual harassment at your company.

If the evidence warrants, take action. Zero tolerance applies to everyone, from hourly part-timers to the CEO.

Don’t fall into the "not us" trap of complacency. SHRM suggests being proactive and bringing in a third-party expert to conduct a diversity assessment and considering what issues exist now or in the future. Employee training about sexual harassment is a good start, SHRM notes, but only a start.

These strategies are sound, but the most effective way to prevent sexual harassment in any organization remains this: Having more women in positions of power. That will help our society change a “boy’s club” culture to an inclusive culture where everyone is respected.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 12,000 members represent 850 companies and 115 corporate partners in 22 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.