CEOs Address #MeToo

Fostering a culture of empowerment can prevent sexual harassment at work

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright April 30, 2018
CEOs Address #MeToo

​Sharifah Hardie, CEO X Roads TV

Sharifah Hardie, CEO of X Roads TV, knows firsthand how awful sexual harassment can be. She said an HR representative once propositioned her.

In a previous role she said it was "was common to be sexually harassed, or, as an executive, to be told to just sit there and look cute as opposed to being respected for my skillset, experience and title."

As the #MeToo movement marks its six-month anniversary, Hardie is among many chief executives making sure their work environments are ones in which sexual harassment isn't tolerated—and in which discussions around the topic are openly pursued to curb this conduct. In interviews with SHRM Online, they said that when it comes to sexual harassment, CEOs must do far more than just model good behavior. 

"If [executives] claim the company has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment … follow through on consequences," said Nannina Angioni, a founding partner of Kaedian LLP, an employment law practice in Los Angeles.

"Make sure employees have more than one avenue to lodge complaints. Don't put onerous requirements on complaints, and dedicate time and attention to being proactive in combatting workplace harassment," she said. Executives shouldn't wait "for something to boil over. Have management personnel keep their ears to the ground and, if something seems odd, be proactive. Employees will be more loyal, work harder, and uphold company objectives if they feel the company has their backs."

The consequences of not addressing sexual harassment can devastate a company's reputation, impede its ability to recruit and decimate the bottom line, experts said.

Since 2010, employers have paid nearly $700 million to employees alleging harassment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC's) pre-litigation process alone; this does not include the cost of private settlements or matters litigated through the courts, according to data from the EEOC.

Nearly every company in the U.S. has a policy against sexual harassment, yet "22 percent of nonmanagement employees did not know for sure that these policies existed," according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

According to Deloitte's 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, companies' reputations, relevance and bottom lines hinge on their ability to act as good citizens and influence pressing public issues. The C-suite must be a strategic and collaborative force to instill true change, the report revealed. Yet, despite the emerging link between social impact and financial performance, only 18 percent of companies said citizenship is a top priority in corporate strategy. 

Being a good steward means making sure all employees keep their hands and any inappropriate comments to themselves. 

Far too often, sexual harassment is "minimized as 'boys being boys' or 'that's just how it is,' " said Hardie, who runs a digital media and online streaming platform in Long Beach, Calif.

"Even when we discuss these issues with the perpetrator, there is no penalty for it," she said. "We need stiff penalties, consequences and repercussions."

For sexual harassment to be eliminated, chief executives and attorneys told SHRM Online, executives need to do more than model what's appropriate. Cultural change is necessary. That includes face-to-face training and empowering victims and bystanders to speak up without fear of reprisals. 

Recruitment Difficulty Takes on a New Meaning

Although many link the #MeToo movement (you can see our timeline here) to The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into Hollywood film executive Harvey Weinstein six months ago, the sea change began as early as July 2016. That's when Roger Ailes was fired as Fox News' chairman and chief executive amid a sexual harassment scandal. Several months later, when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly was accused of sexual harassment, so many people took to social media to complain that sponsors began yanking lucrative ads from the network.

"The power of social media is a game changer in this paradigm," said Mark Kluger, a partner at the employment law firm Kluger Healey based in New York and New Jersey. 

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Calls for boycotts and outcries for justice have forced many companies to change how they respond to what was once an internal matter that was swept under the rug or silenced by giving victims cash.

"I think social media's impact on the issue has really made companies react more than any other pressure has," Kluger said. The concern with reputation from both the consumer and recruitment perspectives have caused many executives to sit up and take notice.

"Business as usual" for some companies won't fly any more.

"The impact [of these scandals] on reputation can be devastating to a company's brand in large part due to the low unemployment rate and the attitude of Millennials and Gen Zers," Kluger said. "Recruiting becomes more difficult based on brand reputation," he pointed out, echoing the Deloitte research. 

If potential candidates see negative posts about the employer when deciding whether to work there, they might look for companies with better reputations.

"With the best and brightest being the prize, employers are going to clean up their acts in order to be attractive to those applicants," he said.

He added that this has led employers to take note of how they're responding to workplace harassment in a much more public way than they have before. Kluger and others pointed out how swift companies are to offer public apologies, to make amends to victims who have suffered at the hands of predators, and to publicize the consequences for those predators, which often includes termination.

"Executives need to sit up and take notice because they need to be able to guide their companies appropriately in the midst of this change," said Lisa Gingeleskie, Esq., a labor law attorney with Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper P.C. in Westfield, N.J. The #MeToo movement has cloaked victims' stories with instant credibility, which is something that wasn't necessarily happening in the past, she said. "If companies want to avoid cost to their businesses and reputation, as well as avoid potential legal liability, they can no longer turn a blind eye to workplace misconduct—it's not enough anymore to brush it off with a 'boys will be boys' mentality. All complaints need to be taken seriously. And if there is an issue, whether it be individual or systematic, companies need to take ownership and attack the issue rather than look the other way."

One way to do that is to empower all employees. 

Empower Victims and Bystanders

True change begins at the top.

Patric Palm, CEO of Favro, a planning and collaboration app in Sweden, said leaders should consider the action of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. After two black patrons were arrested within two minutes of arriving at a Starbucks—and after an uproar on social media—Johnson announced that the company would close on May 29 for all employees to receive racial-bias training. 

"That CEO was really trying to send a strong signal," Palm said in a telephone interview from Sweden. "He really wants to make a statement. This is the same situation." Leaders need to make a statement, he said, by ensuring their organizations value customers as well as employees. All employees should feel "empowered" to report harassment of any kind.

"So, you empower people and if you put an equal emphasis as a CEO on the importance of living those values—then it's not a CEO or HR problem to step up when you see something bad—every person will feel empowered to say something when they see something bad, including sexual harassment. That creates the opposite of a culture of silence."

See Something? Say Something

"The new forefront in sexual harassment training," Kluger said, "is bystander training—and it's something that's been in effect in the military to address sexual assault, and universities have employed it as well."

That type of training prepares those who witness sexual harassment to encourage victims to report it or to address the harassment when it happens [much like Snack Man did on the New York City subway], Kluger pointed out.

"The concept is you get in the middle of the situation," Kluger said, "and you give whoever is doing the behavior a way to back off and get him or herself out of the situation and spare the victim as well."

Empowering bystanders is one of the most effective pieces of sexual harassment training, he said.

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