By Amy S. Cramer, J.D., LL.M.
“Me Too” began as a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. Its viral spread in late October 2017, was the result of it becoming a hashtag on social media. Users wanted to show how widespread the prevalence of sexual misbehavior had become, especially in the workplace. Although the #metoo movement does go by other names, it is today widely identified as the name to describe sexual harassment and assault against women.
It also was primarily the celebrity crowd that started increasing the use of #metoo on social media. After so many prominent women came out against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it was like the flood gates had opened, both against him and against many other harassers in that community. These men had gone undeterred for decades. Sometimes it came out that women were the harassers, but men were the majority. And many of the men were wealthy, successful and well-known.
With this connection to the glamour of Hollywood, the thought of how sexual harassment and assault might pertain to the common woman in the U.S. didn’t take long to gel. In fact, once women throughout the country began to understand what the celebrities were saying, they were able to relate to what these celebs had experienced as well. It might have not occurred on the movie set or on a producer’s couch, but women everywhere began to identity and relive instances of inappropriate behavior by male supervisors or colleagues that had happened to them in their organizations.
In the days before “me too” women were so deterred by the devastating effects of coming forward; they feared they wouldn’t be believed or would face repercussions for speaking out on the job. In fact, many employers would prefer not to face these issues and often try to sweep them under the rug, either by moving staff around or having conversations with staff members with the goal of this not occurring again. More often then not, an employer will trivialize an incident or even chalk it up to “management style.”. Generally, the incident dies and the women go on working in spite of the hostile work environment they continue to face.
Unfortunately, employers sometimes think it’s better to protect their bottom line than to protect a woman. This may occur if the harasser is an “up-and-comer” at the organization and the company fears it will lose the benefits this man could produce.
Women should be given the benefit of the doubt if it becomes a “he said-she said” problem. Shutting down a woman’s complaints only creates an atmosphere of distrust, especially today with he widespread understanding of “#metoo” and what it can do.
For the average woman in the workplace, the question regarding when to “pull the trigger” on a sexual harassment or assault occurrence is a big question. One would think the response time by management would now be much quicker courtesy of “me too”, especially if there is more than one woman making a similar complaint, but often organizations use time as their weapon of choice against women. Drawing out the process of an internal investigation exposes women to a peek behind the curtain of the retaliation to come for speaking out. The consequences of the reveal may still require some assistance, perhaps from legal counsel.
Documenting the experience is very important for the person reporting the harassment or assault. Everything from specific words used by the harasser to specific times of day that harassment is occurring can mean a lot for the accuser’s credibility. Even keeping a log or diary of these experiences can be useful. Again, harassment happens in a variety of ways – rubbing against someone, verbally using terms that make someone feel uncomfortable, posting photos or sayings that seem to be sending messages that demean or offend a group of people. All of these can be considered harassment. Beyond these instances, the problem of what may follow if someone complains to management is also considered illegal.
For example, the issue of retaliation enters the picture once a woman or man has spoken out. (It’s important to keep the door open to both sexes regarding the potential to be harassed.) The retaliation might be subtle, but if a person feels that he or she is being treated unfairly after speaking to supervisory personnel about a sexual harassment problem, it is important to seek some legal advice. It doesn’t require someone to shout about the situation. It does require thought and concern about what is transpiring. Keeping emotions out of the situation is the best bet, and that is why a third-party, outside of the organization, might be able to see things more clearly for anyone claiming harassment.
Going through what constitutes sexual harassment is probably more “messy” than understanding what sexual assault is. Assault is obviously some type of physical attack. Harassment may be exhibited one time or it may be a series of events that make a person feel uncomfortable, as noted before. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable or you have experienced some type of physical event, then it would be useful to contact a lawyer.
How to end this type of behavior in the workplace has become a significant concern for companies across the country. Not only does it pose a public relations problem, it also causes a recruitment problem and an issue for a company’s customers. No company wants to be viewed as a place where both sexes are not welcome. The concept of a boycott against a company is well-known by now, and it causes organizations to nip sexual harassment concerns in the bud today.
That doesn’t mean that companies have found ways to eliminate it, however. It continues, and what types of solutions will ultimately end harassment in the workplace are years in the making. For example, a new culture in which bullying is not acceptable is one idea, but that won’t happen overnight. In addition, having more women in management may help to alleviate the issue. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which are often part of a victim’s package when he or she has been harassed, silence the victims and can allow the harassers to continue. As long as the NDAs continue, the potential for harassment does as well. Luckily, it is expected that Governor Pritzker will sign the Workplace Transparency Act, which will limit employers’ use of NDAs to silence victims in the future.