A year ago Friday, The New Yorker expose on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's behavior unleashed a media earthquake when several Hollywood actresses accused him publicly of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The rumblings included news of payoffs made over two decades to silence his accusers.
There was a seismic shift as more individuals offered similar tales, their accusations sending powerful people, mostly men, tumbling in disgrace from high-profile jobs. Marches such as Take Back the Workplace and social media movements like #MeToo gave voice to victims of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and predatory behavior. The news became water cooler fodder.
Even Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disclosed her own experience of sexual harassment as a law student.
A majority of Americans said sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, and nearly two-thirds said men who engage in this behavior usually get away with it, according to a Washington Post survey. HR came under fire for seeming to look the other way or ineptly handling the issue at their organizations.
Has There Been a Sea Change?
So what—if anything—has changed since last year?
Nearly one-third of 1,034 executives said they have changed their behaviors to a moderate, great or very great extent to avoid behavior that could be perceived as sexual harassment, according to new research the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released today. About one-fourth of 1,022 managers said they have changed their behaviors.
They are seeing the damage sexual harassment can create throughout an organization. Twenty-three percent attributed lowered morale and decreased engagement to sexual harassment, 18 percent said it affected productivity and 15 percent believed it created a hostile work environment. SHRM's findings are from data collected in January.
"Having a third of executives reporting changed behavior is significant," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM. "Yet, we can't let the pendulum swing too far. Organizations must be careful not to create a culture of 'guilty until proven innocent' and we cannot tolerate other unintended consequences."
An uncertainty of what constitutes sexual harassment has made some men uncomfortable around female co-workers and wary about how to navigate changing workplace dynamics.
"One troubling trend," Taylor said, "is executives going as far as to not invite female colleagues on trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles to avoid any situation that could be perceived incorrectly, thus reducing the opportunity for women."
There also can be legal repercussions. The number of sex discrimination claims and sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has risen. Among filings in fiscal year 2018, 41 included sexual harassment claims. In fiscal year 2017, sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings.
"Given the EEOC's limited resources and the broad range of legal claims and protected categories for which the agency is responsible, a jump of 25 percent in any one legal claim is, in most employers' view, remarkable," said Christopher DeGroff. He is an attorney at labor and employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.
"The dramatic increase in filings should be an eye-opener for employers," he blogged. The EEOC is increasing its enforcement activity with a particular focus on sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
"The EEOC still strongly advises employers should update, and aggressively enforce, their EEO policies. Now, more than ever, employers need to be on top of their game to avoid becoming the next target of EEOC-initiated litigation."
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]
Whether employers have bulked up their anti-harassment training and discipline processes depends on who you ask.
Only 10 percent of 1,512 adults working in the U.S. said their organizations added more anti-sexual harassment training or resources, according to a Harris poll conducted in February and March.
But more attention has been paid to the quality of the training, with an emphasis on role-playing scenarios and different types of training for managers compared to nonmanagers. Training also has been mandated in some locales.
Effective Oct. 9, 2018, all employers in New York City must provide sexual-harassment prevention training to all workers. These employers also must adopt a written sexual-harassment prevention policy and distribute it to employees.
Employers have made day-to-day changes, too. They started cultivating respectful cultures and taking actions to thwart inappropriate behavior, including cutting back on alcohol at company parties and patrolling party venues for suspicious activity. Employees began flexing their muscles, sometimes recording work conversations without employers' knowledge or permission, to bolster their claims of sexual harassment or discrimination.
While 72 percent of employee respondents told SHRM they were satisfied with their company's efforts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, more than one-third still believe their workplace fosters sexual harassment from a small to a very great extent.
"The fact that some workplace cultures still foster sexual harassment says there is more work to be done," Taylor said. "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."
To create a safe working environment, HR needs to be able to investigate claims without being retaliated against, executives said. Other positive workplace culture changes happen when HR investigates all workplace misconduct investigations and more-diverse leaders are hired.
SHRM has compiled resources to help HR professionals prevent and deal with harassment.
"At its core, an organization has to have the right culture to self-police," Taylor added. "We have a long road to go, but positive strides have been made."
Actions have been taken to protect vulnerable workers, such as those in the hospitality industry. Last October, the Chicago City Council passed the "Hands Off Pants On" ordinance requiring all hotels in the city to adopt a panic button system and an anti-sexual harassment policy.
At the state level, lawmakers have introduced "an unprecedented amount of legislation on sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies" in 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-two states brought forth more than 125 pieces of legislation—some relating to legislators' behavior and some affecting employers.
Maryland's Disclosing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act of 2018 took effect Monday. Among its provisions, employers with at least 50 employees are required to complete a survey disclosing the number of sexual-harassment settlements into which the employer has entered.
There also has been a flurry of bills prohibiting nondisclosure agreements in cases of workplace sexual harassment. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed into law a bill, effective Jan. 1, that prohibits confidentiality provisions regarding factual information in sexual harassment settlement agreements.
At the federal level, the Ending the Monopoly of Power Over Workplace Harassment through Education and Reporting (EMPOWER) Act was introduced in July to "help stop the culture of silence in cases of sexual harassment" that protects perpetrators, said co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va.
And the U.S. Senate introduced a bipartisan bill Dec. 6 that would make it illegal for businesses to enforce mandatory arbitration agreements for sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims.
But workers on the Hill are still waiting for passage of a bill that protects them from sexual harassment by members of Congress, according to ABC News. Nine members of Congress resigned in the past year because of allegations of inappropriate behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
And the claims of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior in the workplace did not necessarily lead to prosecution for the accused. While there was an 83 percent increase in such complaints in California for the first three months of 2018, according to Variety
, Los Angeles prosecutors have not filed a single criminal charge
"Many of the cases have been dismissed because of the statute of limitations—just three years in some instances. In other cases, the victim refused to participate in a follow-up interview with a prosecutor, a necessary step in the process," Variety reported.
Some organizations took drastic measures to distance themselves from employees' conduct. In one case, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names renamed a glacier that bore the name of renowned Boston University geologist David Marchant after an investigation found he had sexually harassed a 22-year-old graduate student while in Antarctica on research. The university decided the findings also warranted removing him from the faculty.