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Frustrated by failed internal reporting mechanisms, employees have turned to social media
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While social media can bring about change, HR's conversations with those who share #MeToo posts can, among other steps, help restore trust in and enforcement of zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies.
The #MeToo movement is a campaign against sexual harassment and assault that picked up steam on social media in October 2017 in response to the harassment allegations against movie executive Harvey Weinstein. Millions have used the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to acknowledge that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault, and to denounce such misconduct.
HR has a choice if it notices or learns of a #MeToo posting by an employee—ignore it because it doesn't constitute a formal complaint, or ask the worker to discuss it with HR.
If one of Newport News Shipbuilding's employees had a #MeToo post that came to HR's attention, "Our HR team would respond quickly," said Susan Jacobs, vice president of human resources and administration for the company, which is located in Newport News, Va. "We would treat this with the same level of respect as we would any other allegation of misconduct. We'd employ our standard investigative processes and follow the evidence and the facts. This would naturally include meeting with the employee."
If an employer can address the concerns in a #MeToo posting, it could save itself a lot of money in litigation costs, according to Paul Patten, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Chicago.
HR would not look good to a jury if it knew about a #MeToo posting but did nothing about it, said Helene Wasserman, an attorney with Littler in Los Angeles. But she said HR shouldn't ask to "friend" colleagues on social media just to see their posts.
Posts like these will become common knowledge through the grapevine, according to her.
In the meeting with HR, Wasserman cautions against using the word "harassment" unless the employee used that word in the posting or uses in the meeting. For example, if the posting was "#MeToo: My boss is a total jerk," ask what was meant by that. Reassure the worker that HR wants the person to be comfortable at work and wants the workplace to be professional.
If the person says, "I'm fine, it's not a big deal," then the employer has something in its file reflecting that it at least addressed the situation. "There's a lot of bandwagonning going on," Wasserman said. Many people are making #MeToo posts right now because they see a lot of other people doing it, she explained.
Often when HR professionals learn of problems that weren't directly reported to them, employees are hesitant to discuss them, said Susan Benton, an attorney with Butler Rubin in Chicago. Another approach is to inform the worker that the employer cannot stop misconduct unless it knows what's going on and can investigate. Reinforce that the employer wants the misconduct to stop, she added.
Social Media's Power
"These are interesting times," said Ingrid Fredeen, J.D., vice president of Navex Engage, the online learning content service for Navex Global in Portland, Ore. Through social media, victims of sexual harassment are getting support and forcing change in ways they couldn't through litigation, she noted. When complainants file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, settlements are often reached with little fanfare. When complainants take to social media, however, CEOs are sometimes ousted, other careers can end, and companies often make wholesale changes to prevent future harassment, Fredeen observed.
Employers have themselves partly to blame for the #MeToo tsunami, according to Fredeen. Employees who come forward may have tried to report harassment to HR, but perhaps HR didn't believe them or the complainant suffered retaliation, leading employees to distrust the company's reporting or investigative processes, she said. By posting to social media, some workers may hope to prevent perpetrators from victimizing others.
Building trust in an employer's response to harassment claims takes time, Fredeen noted.
HR should attend harassment prevention training so it has its finger on the pulse of the organization, said Valerie Samuels, an attorney with Posternak Blankstein & Lund in Boston.
In addition to training, employers should, in light of current events, reissue their anti-harassment policies, complaint procedures and anti-retaliation policies, Wasserman said.
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]
"Let people know it's OK to complain [and that] no action will be taken against the worker for complaining," she noted. Tell workers that if they even suspect retaliation that they should report it to HR.
"Most importantly, people pay more attention to what you do and less to what you say," Jacobs noted. "That is why it is crucial that when HR determines that sexual harassment has taken place, definitive action is taken. Most misconduct should be addressed with a progressive discipline process. But sexual harassment should not be. It should be on the short list of things that result in termination the first time it occurs."
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