Monday 15 October marks the first anniversary of the #MeToo movement. On the same date last year, actor Alyssa Milano encouraged social media users to adopt the hashtag as a means of drawing attention to personal stories of sexual harassment and assault. From that point on, the hashtag snowballed, becoming a socio-cultural force.

With the phenomenon showing no signs of slowing down, specialist employment-law firm GQ|Littler has found that businesses have interpreted the #MeToo message with wildly varying levels of intensity. In research of how HR policies in UK and US companies have changed in response to the movement, the firm found that some have implemented broadly constructive and proportionate rules, such as:

  • staff should not display images of a sexual nature in the workplace;
  • one employee should never impede or block someone’s movement in a communal space, and
  • figures who have either influence or decision-making power over the careers of other workers will be held to a higher standard of what’s appropriate in the workplace.

However, other firms have taken more extreme lines, such as:

  • staff must never ask colleagues for their personal phone numbers;
  • male and female employees should not share rental cars together on business trips, and
  • one employee should not stare at another for longer than five seconds at a time.

GQ|Littler partner Paul Quain says: “The new focus on addressing sexual harassment is very welcome – but some new workplace guidelines are more questionable. If navigating new rules becomes too difficult, then some employees may avoid interacting with each other in case they are perceived to be behaving inappropriately. This could have a negative effect on the day-to-day functioning of a business. On the other end of the spectrum, if employees perceive the rules to be ridiculous or excessive they may ignore them entirely.”

Quain notes: “As work and social lives increasingly merge together, some colleagues become more like friends and this leads to boundaries becoming less defined, and a lack of clarity over whether the work rules really apply. The intertwining of work and social activities could also have an impact on the reach of employers’ sexual harassment policies in terms of where the line is drawn.”

With that in mind, how can firms ensure that their responses to the movement and the issues it highlights are workable and proportionate?

Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What we are essentially demanding of people in the workplace is that, just as they respect their suppliers and customers, they should extend the same courtesy to their colleagues. That involves being mindful of any power dynamics in which they play a role, and not abusing them. Because ultimately, that is the chief concern behind #MeToo: powerful people using their positions to take advantage of less-powerful people under the aegis of professional relationships and scenarios.”

She notes: “the more restrictions and protocols you put in place, and the more densely layered they become, the less you will be addressing the underlying problem. However, the more you encourage employees to treat each other with respect – indeed, to treat each other as they would wish to be treated themselves – the less likely you will need to regulate. That there are individuals who will require enhancements of their awareness on these matters is a training and development issue. There will be occasions where it will be necessary to raise awareness of how what someone is doing is making others feel less safe.”

Cooper points out: “we accept that we have safeguarding obligations towards our employees in terms of their physical safety – eg, to protect them from workplace accidents – and their mental health. So now it makes sense that we are expressing a need to safeguard them against inappropriate, predatory behaviour. Some very basic guidelines, in the vein of the more proportionate ones that Quain’s firm highlights, may help. But the workplace does rely upon an effective deployment of social skills – so anything that restricts the development of cordial, workplace relationships, and prevent people from enjoying their work, would automatically hit the buffers.”

She adds: “it’s like imposing an implausible budget upon someone: if it is inherently ridiculous, then people will think that the ethos that underpins it must be ridiculous, too. So, a question that must be asked of every manager at every performance-appraisal meeting is: ‘How do you safeguard the relationships that you have with your team members, and that they have with each other?’ That will give us some critical insights into the important area of relationships, and how they are conducted.”

For further thoughts on building trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of San Francisco #MeToo protest from January this year courtesy of Sundry Photography, via Shutterstock

Like what you've read? Membership gives you more. Become a member