It’s time to end #MeToo Whac-a-mole — and sexual harassment — for good
As New York’s first woman governor, one of Kathy Hochul’s first moves was to clean house. She ousted anyone suspected of implication in enabling Andrew Cuomo to allegedly harass and assault women during his decade in power. Gov. Hochul has promised “a dramatic change in culture, accountability, and no tolerance for individuals who cross the line” on workplace harassment.
It’s been four years since the #MeToo movement sparked a global reckoning about workplace safety. What has been accomplished? Many might say that the ousting of alleged bad actors such as Gov. Cuomo and their replacement by women leaders is measurable change. And that would be shortsighted.
We’ve settled into an all-too familiar pattern of accused prominent, chronic sexual harassers being exposed, followed by a media frenzy and — after a period of denial and accuser-character-assassination tactics — a fall (or at least tumble) from power. And then, like Whac-a-mole, alleged perpetrators pop up in the media seeking atonement or testing the comeback waters without acknowledging their sins — which can be exhausting for victims. We can expect this to go on ad nauseam because we have not dismantled the mechanisms that allow workplace harassment to exist in the first place.
To move forward, we must pivot away from individual examples of high-profile perpetrators and their victims and toward the institutions that allowed them to harm others for so long. While firing bad actors is a necessary start, to create culture change, any leader who finds themselves in the position of Gov. Hochul must acknowledge that this is not about one bad person, but rather longstanding employee policies, practices and attitudes that determine culture and behavior.
We’ve learned that the systemic issues that allow abuse to persist occur alongside bullying, disrespect and incivility. They happen with incredible power differentials and when leadership and management are not fully trained to oversee others, including behavioral awareness and understanding of the law.
Leaders can take an important first step to ensure workers understand their rights through effective training, tailored to the profession and with scenarios that impart behavioral awareness of what’s acceptable and what’s not. A 2021 study revealed that men and women have significantly different beliefs as to what constitutes sexual harassment. Furthermore, 75 percent of men and 85 percent of women said that training made them feel safer at work. Yet, as of 2021, only six states legally require training in both the public and private sector.
Harassment can be exacerbated in environments with unpredictable hours and job insecurity. We know that as long as inequality in pay, promotions and hiring persists, power will be abused. We also know that power can change us and our brains; when we get it, we may lose empathy and compassion for others and have a sense of entitlement. It happens in any industry, regardless of gender or political party.
Those surrounding abusers play a key role. A study, “Networks of Complicity,” published immediately after the #MeToo revelations, found perpetrators stay in power because they build networks that protect them and enable their behavior. This causes lasting harm to victims, other employees and the organization as a whole. Calling out sexual harassers or those with questionable attitudes toward women and protected groups is not only good for those who are harassed, but also a barometer for other unethical behavior at work that can end up harming the workplace — and the communities the business or organization serves — in many ways. Given that, Cuomo’s misrepresentation of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes really isn’t surprising at all.
Communication can set culture. A public statement from leadership committing to workplace safety influences behavior, even if there hasn’t been a crisis. Those who provide oversight, such as governing boards and shareholders, must evaluate and hold leaders accountable to their performance on these issues.
Putting in place independent, third-party reporting and investigation mechanisms to evaluate claims can result in more reliable indicators of the truth. Transparency and meritocratic policies can rid not only discrimination but also toxic workplace politics.
A bolder mechanism that has the opportunity to transform the workplace is to eradicate non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration clauses when employees raise issues of harassment and discrimination, a cause championed by Gretchen Carlson and Julie Roginsky, who founded the nonprofit initiative “Lift Our Voices.” Those who are courageous enough to come forward to describe allegations of illegal workplace behavior should be heard instead of forced into silence.
Lastly, we must advocate for undergraduate and graduate schools to train future workers, managers and leaders to come into the workplace with professional skills beyond mastering a particular discipline; we must master being decent human beings, too. More can be done to bring ethical leadership and management to higher education, so that fostering diverse and inclusive work environments become standard professional skills.
Ultimately, a societal shift in attitude requires viewing harassment as more than just a women’s issue and, instead, one of human decency. It’s important that the lasting lessons during scandals, such as Cuomo’s, be focused on what we all can do to foster respect, equal opportunity and public and private workplaces where power is used responsibly.
Carolyn McGourty Supple is co-founder and executive director of The Press Forward, a nonprofit and nonpartisan initiative dedicated to fostering safe, fair workplace culture. A former journalist, she also was a management consultant and currently is a visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin.