It started with an innocuous-looking email. The attachment was graphic. It contained a complaint made by a young woman against her high-achieving, powerful boss. The CEO immediately initiated an inquiry. And it was then that the cookie started to crumble. Similar complaints kept coming in with unnerving speed against the said boss as well as some of his key team members, from across the globe. Three months on, the CEO was certain that there was a pattern to this behaviour, with a “class action suit" a distinct possibility. Was this his organization’s #MeToo moment? he wondered.
A solitary complaint filed against a powerful executive can be enough to open the floodgates. When a person in power is an abuser, there is often a real worry among victims about how to raise it. But just the knowledge that there has been a complaint and resultant investigation against the perpetrator (and however confidential, such news does tend to travel), gives courage to others who have either experienced abuse, or seen a hostile work environment, to raise their own concerns.
MeToo waves can also be triggered in organizations quite innocuously. I have seen, for example, a flurry of complaints just when an organization completes a proactive and healthy organization-wide training or sensitization programme on preventing sexual harassment at the workplace. Empowered with information and made freshly aware of the policy, employees could then take it upon themselves to report a complaint or a suspected hostile work environment. This is actually a healthy wave. Whatever the cause, and there could be many, organizations need to respond effectively.
The first thing is to not panic. Mature organizations recognize that such spurts in complaints do happen, and respond from that space. They acknowledge the problem, and unambiguously state the company’s intent to address it. This is a great time to reinforce the company’s zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment. Zero tolerance is often confused with a target to get to zero harassment. These are not the same. A target of zero cases may be unrealistic in the workplace, and, if set, could end up with managers actually suppressing cases to get to the mythical zero.
On the ground, this will require sensitization training for leaders and first responders—policy custodians, HR, grievance cell members, every first-line manager. Call in the experts. And advise leaders to never be flippant or joke about the issue.
The need for swift, sensitive and fair handling of the investigation is, of course, a given. But it is also an absolute must to put in place strong measures to ensure that the victims and complainants don’t face retaliation, especially when the powerful are the accused.
And prepare for the media—organizations are often caught on the back foot in this regard, even though they may be doing all the right things. So, get your communication ammunition ready. It is better to be proactive and “MeToo Proof" your organization.
Carpet-bomb the anti-harassment policy across the organization. Knowledge itself is a deterrent. Employees must be conversant with how to report perceived harassment. Real-life case studies written by employees and managers are a great way to drive home the message, with senior leaders themselves standing up and delivering training. What better way to build faith among employees and reinforce to them that bona-fide complaints will be addressed.
While doing this, don’t neglect organizational outposts where leadership is delegated to a few. Also, ensure that the policy applies to the least franchised—the temps, the contractors and vendor partners who form part of the larger organizational ecosystem. Training in Indian languages is critical to reach this group. Revisit your whistleblower programme for robustness.
At the same time, the complaint system should not be used for frivolous or mischievous reasons. And to send home that message, the consequences of sending in mala-fide complaints should also be delivered in unequivocal terms.
Train HR and first-line managers to pick up the faintest of cues. The ability to pick up early signals of a “quid pro quo" or a hostile work environment form of sexual harassment is a great way to actually prevent a full-fledged MeToo wave. Not only should they be able to pick up the cues, they should be independent enough to report it or call out the problem. An HR executive who is actually reporting to a purported perpetrator of the crime is more often than not unlikely to “squeal" on his or her boss. So, to ensure independence, organizations should have strong dual-line reporting outside that business or location, and into the head office, for functions like HR.
Finally, impress upon employees that they must always report a complaint. No one does a favour to either the victim or the organization by brushing it under the carpet.
As the MeToo movement gains traction, quality time and mindshare being spent on gearing up their internal response systems may even seem burdensome to organizations and managers.
Jennifer Drobac, professor at the Indiana University School of Law, sums it up nicely when she says: “People, especially men, may wonder if they even want to work with women now. Executives may hesitate to mentor female subordinates. Men may fear unfounded accusations, or that their own clueless behaviour could prompt a complaint. Are the battle lines being drawn? Yes, but let’s be clear. Those battle lines are between men and women against sexual predators. Co-workers are in this battle together. This #MeToo phenomenon could divide us or bring us together to cure a social evil: sexual predation."
Organizational maturity lies in recognizing and addressing this.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.