The #MeToo Effect Trickles Down the Public Workforce
As sexual harassment allegations take down powerful politicians, states and cities are revisiting their training and policies for the bureaucrats who have far less power but keep the government running.
Since the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault transcended Twitter in October, many powerful men have lost their jobs and reputations -- in Hollywood, in media, in Congress and in state capitols. It has sparked conversations about power and gender in the workplace, laying the groundwork for a potentially revolutionary societal change.
But sexual harassment is not just committed by people at the highest levels of industries. It can happen between peers at work and by someone at the bottom of the payroll.
Some states and cities recognize this and are already taking action.
In the last two months, at least five governors issued executive orders dealing with sexual harassment policies, training and practices for their own state employees. Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards launched a sexual harassment task force, which had its first meeting in December. Florida’s Rick Scott is focused on improving the reporting and investigation of complaints. Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma is working with the state attorney general’s office to increase the availability of training to state agencies. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy ordered a review of policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment prevention training. And Vermont's Phil Scott's new code of ethics addresses the need for "quick and effective action" to combat sexual harassment. Already, the state has required all 8,000 state employees to take a sexual harassment prevention class by the end of the year.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has similarly ordered all of the public workers that keep the nation’s capital running to undergo sexual harassment training by February.
But what should sexual harassment training look like?
Susan Bisom-Rapp, associate dean and professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, has been researching sexual harassment for two decades and believes that sexual harassment training has been misguided for years.
“The whole ethos of training and prevention that’s been built into employment law has been not to solve the problem but to avoid liability. That’s the wrong approach,” she says.
She and other experts say it’s important to scrutinize a workplace’s culture. To do that, she recommends first doing a “climate survey” to uncover underlying problems in the way workers are treated.
Rather than directly asking employees if they have been sexually harassed at work, climate surveys ask employees about specific working conditions -- such as offensive jokes being commonplace -- that may lead to sexual harassment. It’s kind of like a barometer to see whether a hurricane is coming, rather than waiting for the dangerous winds to damage property and threaten lives.
Minneapolis, where officials have taken an active role in the last two months in reexamining the city's sexual harassment policies, is doing something similar.
The city recently formed "employee resource groups" -- one for women, one for racial minorities and one for military veterans -- that meet monthly to communicate problems to management, talk with peers in a safe and comfortable environment, and provide management a new way to interact with employees.
"We use the groups to communicate to employees what they can do if they have a problem and how the problem will be handled," says Patience Ferguson, the city's chief human resources officer. "Employees need to know that we're going to hold people accountable. The worst thing is creating an expectation that something will happen and nothing is done."
In November, the city council asked the HR department as well as the city’s attorney and ethics officer to take feedback from the employee resource groups into account and review sexual harassment policies with the ultimate goals of increasing the awareness of reporting options and the independence of investigations.
The city is also putting a focus on managers and devoting more training to helping them develop skills for listening to employees' concerns and figuring out ways to resolve problems.
“It’s more than just about the harassment,” says Ferguson. “It’s creating a different environment in government.”
Other cities are clearly defining what constitutes sexual harassment because as Maria Monteagudo, the employee relations director for Milwaukee, says: "Saying we have 'zero tolerance' is not enough."
Milwaukee rewrote its policies at the end of 2017 to emphasize the importance of educating workers on what harassment is and the responsibility for all employees, not just victims, to report improper behavior. (Monteagudo drew many of her ideas from a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force report on harassment.)
Similarly, D.C. brought its harassment guidelines into the digital age, adding sexting and sending suggestive messages on apps like Snapchat to the list of banned behaviors.
In Idaho, HR officials are emphasizing the financial and workforce benefits of combatting sexual harassment.
“We’re focusing our training on how you will save money if you create a workplace that is professional, with all people treated with respect, civility and professionalism,” says HR Administrator Susan Buxton, who was hired by Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho. She says the amount of training that combats sexual harassment training has since tripled. “You have more productivity, a more engaged workforce and less turnover. It’s just a better business model.”
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