November 24, 2017

Tsunami of Sexual Harassment Accusations May Lead to Change

by Brigid Heid, Eastman & Smith Ltd.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal launched the #MeToo campaign and has led to a virtual deluge of women coming forward with stories of powerful men committing acts of sexual harassment, assault and undeniable abuses of power.

Some conduct occurred over decades and involved a multitude of victims (80+ for Harvey Weinstein) and co-conspirators who enabled the abuse by embracing a culture of silence. Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein even negotiated protections in their employment contracts to insulate themselves if they were ever accused of sexual harassment.

The staggering list of sexual misconduct grows by the day. Try searching “Men Accused of Sexual Harassment ___________” and fill in the blank with an industry (Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Government) or geographic location (Ohio, United Kingdom, Europe) and you may be stunned by the reach of the harassment scandal.

With accusers coming forward in staggering numbers, the proverbial dam of silence seems to have been broken. But what, if anything, will or should change?

  1. If sexually abusive behavior is to stop, women and men alike must speak up. Targets of abusive behavior must complain, yes, but because harassers (and predators) often choose victims who are young or powerless and fearful of retaliation, it is incumbent on organizations to encourage everyone to report known or suspected harassment — silence is no longer an option.
  2. Harassment training should be mandatory in both the public and private sectors. Because of the Weinstein scandal, female members of Congress and the Ohio Statehouse have successfully campaigned to change procedural rules to require harassment training for all members. Currently, training in the private sector is mandatory in only a few states, but that may change.
  3. Sexual harassment training needs a serious overhaul. Rather than focus on what is and isn’t sexual harassment based on the legal definition, “civility” and “professionalism” training should be emphasized. But, if leaders at the top of the organization don’t embrace a professional and respectful culture, the best training in the world won’t change anything.
  4. Men should fight any inclination to exclude women. I fully expect some men will react in exactly the wrong way by quietly excluding women from business meetings, out-of-town travel or client networking events for fear of “being falsely accused” of inappropriate behavior. Certainly, false accusations do happen, but well-meaning men who treat female colleagues with respect should have little concern. Depriving women of professional growth and advancement opportunities turns back the clock and will only hurt the organization in the long run.

Time will tell what the lasting impact of these sexual harassment scandals will be, but change is already happening.

Brigid E. Heid