The hashtag #MeToo went viral in the fall of 2017 in the wake of an onslaught of sexual harassment and assault allegations against entertainment, business and political leaders. Since then, it has turned into a movement across the U.S., as people and organizations have tried to find clarity and change. Just over a year later, has anything changed? Are workplaces fairer and safer? And what do L&D leaders need to know about where to go from here?

In an HR Acuity survey of 158 organizations, 70 percent said they have responded in some way to #MeToo – either by developing a specific initiative or plan (15 percent) or making or planning to make “some improvements/changes to existing programs and processes” (55 percent). Most of those responses to #MeToo involve training.

“Employers are desperately searching for ways to address this cultural issue within the business and corporate sector,” says Jared Pope, founder of Work Shield, an employer harassment prevention (EHP) plan company. In addition to the outside pressures caused by the #MeToo movement, there has been an increased number of workplace harassment suits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – a 62 percent increase since 2016, according to Pope.

Getting Executives on Board

Executives must understand the importance of preventing sexual harassment and assault, Pope says. In fact, recent research from Stanford University found that when leaders prioritize sexual harassment prevention – and demonstrate that commitment in their communication – employees are more likely to prioritize it, as well.

“Leadership at the top needs to be very clear about what their expectations are,” says Rania Anderson, founder of The Way Women Work and author of the new book “WE: Men, Women, and the Decisive Formula for Winning at Work.” In addition to communicating behavioral expectations, they should also model them. Employees need to “see CEOs and executives who, when they observe sexism, immediately shut it down, and … CEOs and executives who are actively mentoring and sponsoring women, traveling with women, having lunch with women, networking with women.”

Developing a Culture that Discourages Harassment

From the executive level, there’s a trickle-down effect to the rest of the organization. “Addressing this issue really starts with the executives’ realizing and understanding that by providing a safe culture of respect and inclusion, and one that stands firm on ‘no workplace harassment,’” says Pope. “Then and only then can the culture change for the better.”

Notably, Pope and Anderson both say that harassment may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace behavior. “If you have an organizational culture that is toxic or permits bullying or aggressive behavior of any other type,” Anderson says, “then that’s an environment where sexism or harassment is more likely to be born or flourish.” A common mistake organizations make is isolating harassment as a separate issue, when it is more likely that it is one symptom of a larger cultural problem.

And if that’s the case, Pope says, “no gadget or tool or ‘right’ hire will save the company.” Anderson recommends having conversations “about how well we work together and what that looks like … enlisting and equipping managers with the actual behaviors that help men and women work well together.” Assume positive intent, and give people candid but graceful feedback, she adds. (Of course, if the behavior is so bad that you can’t give someone the benefit of the doubt, it’s important to take “swift, decisive action.”) By encouraging each other and determining what gender balance and cooperation looks like in your organization, you can decrease the risk of harassment.

Eliminating the Blame Game

Another common mistake, Anderson says, is “shaming and blaming.” Focusing training on the importance of compliance or telling people what they’re doing wrong can be counterproductive. “In most organizations, most people are acting honorably.”

An unintended effect of the #MeToo movement has been that many men now feel uncomfortable working closely with women, fearing that a well-intended behavior will be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, this situation means that many women may be missing out on critical mentoring, sponsorship and networking opportunities. One way to address this situation is to make sure more women are put in the position to mentor and sponsor other women, but until that happens, what should organizations do?

Avoiding “shaming and blaming”-style training is one step. Another, Anderson says, is to incorporate the conversations of how men and women should work together into training. In sales training, for example, “we should be talking about men selling to women, women selling to men, what the differences are, how those environments could be made better, what’s helpful, things to avoid, going out on sales calls,” etc. Talk about gender interactions with vendors and customers as well, and incorporate gender equity in performance reviews. By bringing these conversations into the open and considering gender in every aspect, you can help ensure that equity and respect become part of your organizational culture.

Training organizations have an increasing responsibility to proactively address risks such as sexual harassment before people are hurt and the reputation is harmed. As the people responsible for nurturing talent in the organization, there is no one better than learning leaders to keep that talent responsible, safe and valued.

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