Tackling workplace sexual harassment as an HR professional can sometimes feel like getting squeezed between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, HR is expected to protect, value, and stand up for employees. On the other, HR is tasked with defending the employer from lawsuits—including sexual harassment cases. This push-pull of contradictory responsibilities has made it challenging for HR to define its role in the #MeToo era.
Today’s #MeToo movement was ignited in Oct. 2017 when The New York Times broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual harassment. Not long afterwards, the public began to point fingers at HR. “Where was HR in all these sexual harassment scandals?” asked one TLNT headline. “Sexual harassment cases show the ineffectiveness of going to HR,” reported The New York Times. Then, HR suffered a major #MeToo scandal in its own ranks when FEMA’s head of human resources was forced to resign amidst accusations he hired women as potential sexual partners for male employees.
In the intervening two and a half years, HR professionals around the country have taken significant steps to better protect victims, punish offenders, and reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment. Many companies fired leaders guilty of sexual misconduct, hired more women in their stead, and adopted new trainings, policies, procedures, and rules to prevent future abuses. During this time, employees increasingly turned to HR for help; #MeToo-related complaints and investigations started swamping HR departments. In 2019, the monetary benefits of sexual-harassment cases settled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reached a record high of nearly $70 million.
Many challenges remain, however, for HR and the #MeToo movement. An Oct. 2019 HR Acuity survey found only half of complaints about workplace harassment and misconduct were investigated—and men’s complaints were investigated more often than women’s. Relatedly, 39% of employees still lack confidence the workplace issues they report will be addressed fairly, and 46% fear retaliation. Employees are more likely to take misconduct complaints to managers than to HR.
HR professionals also have to contend with legal issues that hamper their efforts to address #MeToo-related issues. As The New York Times notes, companies that take appropriate measures to punish a harasser may not be able to make those actions public due to privacy concerns—leaving affected employees believing their complaints fell on deaf ears.
Employer efforts to actively address #MeToo concerns have also created unexpected new problems. For example, many companies added or updated their sexual harassment policies without awareness that the wording of these policies might portray women as emotional and vulnerable and men as rational and trustworthy. “Simply reading a sexual harassment policy can lower people’s opinions about women and reinforce implicit beliefs that favor men,” according to The New Republic.
HR’s efforts have also triggered backlash from some camps. Stories about stricter rules for workplace conduct have made headlines. Worse, Bloomberg reported some men on Wall Street are choosing to avoid female coworkers altogether—thereby limiting women’s mentorship and career opportunities. USA Today reported on polls showing men are having a harder time navigating workplace interactions, such as work-related dinners or travel.
CareerArc’s #MeToo in the Workplace Study
Today, over three-quarters of employed Americans (76%) say the #MeToo movement made a positive impact on how sexual harassment is addressed in the workplace. However, less than a third of employed Americans (31%) believe their HR department has created an open or judgment-free way to report sexual harassment at their workplace.
That’s according to CareerArc’s #MeToo in the Workplace Study, a survey conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of CareerArc. We surveyed 1,023 employed (full-time or part-time) Americans on their thoughts and emotions about their HR department in the post-#MeToo era. We found employed Americans believe #MeToo has brought many welcome changes to the workplace—but that the workplace is still far from free of sexual misconduct-related concerns.
Here are the key findings of CareerArc’s #MeToo in the Workplace Study.
Majority of employed American say the #MeToo movement has made a positive impact in the workplace
- More than three quarters (76%) of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement has made a positive impact on how sexual harassment is addressed in the workplace.
- Nearly three quarters (74%) of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement is helping to decrease the occurrence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
- 68% of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement has made them feel more empowered to report sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Still, 77% of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement is not enough to completely prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
But HR departments still have work to do
- 44% of employed Americans say the #MeToo movement has damaged trust between HR and employees. That sentiment is more pronounced among employed men (52%) than employed women (36%), and employed men ages 18-34 (62%) versus 46% of men ages 35+.
- Only 41% of employed Americans say their HR department takes sexual harassment in the workplace very seriously.
- Only 40% of employed Americans say their HR department has created a safe work environment for all employees.
- Only a third of employed Americans (33%) say their HR department deals with sexual harassment cases as proactively as possible.
- Less than a third (31%) of employed Americans say their HR department has created an open or judgment-free way to report sexual harassment at their workplace.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of CareerArc from Feb. 4-6, 2020, among 2,031 adults ages 18 and older, of which 1,023 were employed. Results were weighted for age within gender, region, race/ethnicity, income, and education where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact CareerArc at email@example.com.
Perspectives on HR and #MeToo
Thought leaders, within and outside HR, vary widely in their opinions about HR’s effectiveness in addressing #MeToo issues. Here are six notable perspectives.
HR is no match for sexual harassment
“HR is no match for sexual harassment. It pits male sexual aggression against a system of paperwork and broken promises, and women don’t trust it. For 30 years, we’ve invested responsibility in HR, and it hasn’t worked out. We have to find a better way.” — Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic
Prevention is the most important issue
“Prevention is also better than the cure. Preventing cases of sexual harassment requires far more than a well worded policy. It needs to be backed up by an effective procedure, positive culture and on-going training.” — Robyn South, HR professional, TLNT
Women need to be elevated to higher ranks in the company
“Only with women in positions of power can companies expect to level the structural imbalances that have allowed men to use their status to manipulate less powerful employees—and bargain for extravagant severance packages when they are caught.” — Laura Adler, The New Republic
We need to educate employees more on sexual harassment
“The fact that some workplace cultures still foster sexual harassment says there is more work to be done…. We need a rules-plus approach—organizations need policies and training, but it is the education piece that creates culture change. When you have employees who know how to define, identify and report sexual harassment, everyone can work together to root out sexual harassment in the workplace.” — Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM.
Companies need to prioritize the fight against sexual harassment
“I’ve spent 20 years working in human resources, and in that time I’ve learned that we’re paid to preserve the status quo. At the end of the year, nobody asks the local HR team for a report on how many employees were protected from predatory sexual behavior or how many bullies were fired. If anything, we’re compensated and bonused on arbitrary data, such as retention and turnover. If companies wanted us to get rid of troublemakers, they’d pay us to do so.” — Laurie Ruettimann, former HR leader, VOX
HR can’t do it alone—sexual harassment must be taken seriously by senior leadership
“This is no longer an issue that is just sort of a side issue for only people who are HR professionals to be concerned with; this is an issue that boards and the senior leadership of companies should be deeply concerned about.” — Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, NPR
What do you think? Email us your thoughts and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, and make sure to register for our live webinar where we will be addressing questions during our live Q&A. You can also tweet us your questions using the #TalkHR hashtag.
Live webinar: How HR must evolve in the wake of #MeToo
The stakes are higher than ever for HR professionals today when it comes to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. The recent departures of the HR heads at Google and McDonald’s—both in the wake of sexual misconduct complaints at their respective companies—show how mismanagement of #MeToo-related concerns can derail HR careers.
To help HR professionals navigate these complex issues and pressures, CareerArc is hosting a timely webinar: How HR must evolve in the wake of #MeToo. Our expert speakers, NOBL’s Jane Garza and Paula Cizek, will guide you through the difficult yet important challenges HR professionals face and show you how you can proactively and effectively address employee concerns.
During the webinar, you’ll have a chance to participate in informative live polls with fellow HR professionals and ask specific questions that relate to your role and workplace. We will announce the date and time for this #TalkHR webinar soon.