The social media movement represented by #MeToo began about ten years ago. Recently, however, in response to revelations about sexual assault and harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein, its use has skyrocketed. Literally millions of women (and some men) all over the world – and in every industry – have used the hashtag in recent weeks to come forward about their experiences of being sexually victimized. For many, many women, this social media movement has provided an outlet that didn’t previously exist to express their anger and outrage over being targeted for abuse or harassment because of their gender.
The #MeToo movement is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the workplace, where many of us spend close to half our waking hours. Sexual harassment and abuse have been historically under-reported, as women have often been reluctant or afraid to come forward. #MeToo is changing that, at least on social media. It is likely that more victims will now also feel emboldened to tell their stories of abuse to their HR departments – and to lawyers, judges, and juries.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, as it is a form of sex discrimination. While not every inappropriate comment to an employee will – by itself – create a hostile work environment, when the comments or other behaviors become “severe or pervasive,” the conduct is illegal, and the employee can recover various forms of damages for the harm it causes – both economically and emotionally.
Employers also need to be mindful of the #MeToo movement. They will see more reports of sexual harassment made to their HR personnel, and they must be ready to respond appropriately. That means having the right employment policies and procedures in place, and doing thorough and fair investigations of any harassment complaints. It also means training their employees in how to recognize, prevent, and stop sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is about power. And high ranking executives are very powerful people in their companies. One of the reasons people like Harvey Weinstein have gotten away with so much for so long is because they hold so much power, and victims have been afraid to challenge that power. Thanks in part to #MeToo, that appears to be changing.