Viewpoint: #MeToo Has Influenced the Global Workplace

By Philip M. Berkowitz July 23, 2019
Viewpoint: #MeToo Has Influenced the Global Workplace

​On the international front, the #MeToo movement has had significant impact, both in employment and labor laws as well as in employment practices of multinational companies with highly mobile employees who travel from country to country, on short- and long-term assignments.

France and the U.K.

As many will recall, in May 2011, a hotel maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan accused a Frenchman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief and one-time French presidential hopeful, of sexually assaulting her. The accusations resulted in Strauss-Kahn's disgraced departure from politics, as well as a series of lawsuits and prosecutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

The French Criminal Code already prohibits sexist, insulting behavior. But French public sentiment has not been entirely sympathetic to the movement. A group of 100 prominent French women and intellectuals, including actress Catherine Deneuve, issued an open letter in Le Monde in January 2018, asserting that the #MeToo movement incites "hatred of men" and condemning "puritanism."

In the United Kingdom (U.K.), the #MeToo movement has gained momentum. The London Bar has taken an especially aggressive approach against the use of nondisclosure agreements in settling sexual harassment claims, and lawyers involved in drafting agreements of this nature have been subject to attorney discipline.


Chinese employment laws prohibit discrimination against women. But in fact and practice, the laws provide no clear definition of an offense and no clear guidance on punishment and the few awards that have been made are minimal. This is no doubt in part because of the law's requirement that the woman provide physical evidence of misconduct.

However, things changed after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in 2017. In January 2018, a female former doctoral student at Beihang University posted on social media an allegation that her former doctoral supervisor harassed her on campus. Within days, the former professor was removed from his teaching role, and, the same day, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced plans to establish a long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment at universities and colleges.


In Japan, the anti-harassment movement was galvanized by the disclosure of alleged inappropriate treatment against a female professional. In 2016, journalist Shiori Ito alleged that she was raped by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a high-profile TV journalist, who was a Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Ito is pursuing a civil lawsuit against him.

In April 2018, a female journalist accused the Japan Finance Ministry's Administrative Vice-Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda of harassing her with sexually suggestive comments. Shortly thereafter, Fukuda resigned, denying the allegation but claiming it left him unable to do his job.

Nevertheless, Japanese female employees do not have a history of bringing claims of this nature to the attention of their employers. Most observers believe that the #MeToo movement will cause this culture to shift over time.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]


Interestingly, even in jurisdictions where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights are not well-recognized, same-sex harassment claims have advanced.

Selvamalar Alagaratnam, an attorney with Skrine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, explained that while Malaysia has not recognized gay rights, "on the other hand, same-sex harassment is understood to be prohibited. People acknowledge the link with the workplace. The culture has changed to an extent where there is almost zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment."


While #MeToo is, at its core, focused on curbing harassment, there has been recognition worldwide that the solution is about respect for individuals, regardless of their gender or other characteristics. The "definition of diversity" is different in different locations. Therefore, diversity recruiting, mentorship programs, pay equity and unconscious bias training all need to be adapted to the local jurisdiction.

Multinationals must review, reinforce and restate their policies and culture—from the top down. Further, the HR team must be entrusted and empowered to act.

While much has been said about the "tone at the top," it may be more important to focus on the "tone in the middle." Managers ultimately are the ones who transmit and embody the company's culture, and training is essential to be sure that they understand the need to impart a tone of respect.

Employers must educate themselves on the laws of harassment and discrimination in the countries in which they do business and provide training to expatriates and other mobile employees before they travel, even for brief stays.

The employer must have credible investigation protocols and regularly scheduled training with professional and knowledgeable trainers.

The employer should take action against bad actors, regardless of their level in the company. It must move to prevent misconduct, stop it when it learns of it and commit to continued reinforcement of these messages.

Regardless of your location in the world, attention to these issues will inevitably benefit employers and employees by increasing opportunity for all people, while decreasing severely disruptive workplace misconduct.

Philip M. Berkowitz is an attorney with Littler in New York City.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Discover what’s trending in HR

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.