Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

Eight months after the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement exploded virally on the Internet and spilled out into the real world workplace, human resources teams are still bogged down with a growing number of employee complaints.

#MeToo's origins grew from the multiple sexual harassment allegations against disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was recently indicted on rape charges. But the subsequent fallout continues as HR departments struggle to manage an overwhelming number of sexual harassment and other complaints, NPR reports.

"It created this HR level of activity like nothing we've ever seen," Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, tells NPR.

Taylor says he recently ask a gathering of HR professionals how many were contending with #MeToo-related grievances, investigations and training. 100% of the room said yes.

"When you start talking to employees, they say, 'Oh, this was pervasive for 20 years.' It's because, until last year October, we just made those cases go away," Taylor says, noting companies mainly settled cases out of court or used nondisclosure agreements.

The variety of complaints beyond sexual harassment that HR has had to contend with since #MeToo is not surprising and has, until recently, been relatively contained.

"It starts off with women...being harassed in the workplace," Taylor says, noting that HR has since had to deal with employee pressure regarding pay equity, bullying and retaliation.

The number of sexual harassment investigations for Sharon Sellers has tripled since Weinstein's alleged abuse came to light last year. Sellers is an HR consultant from Santee, South Carolina.

"I've heard: 'It's a madhouse. It's crazy. I can't keep up with the work,'" she says. "And, I am pretty well in that same position."

#MeToo has raised the expectations for HR to do something meaningful and make this "their moment to finally get it right," says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center.

Graves' group in January launched the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which has taken in more than 2,700 complaints. This large number sends a message to companies that have long tried to keep complaints from going public or that have attacked alleged victims, she notes.

"Part of that healing is going to be changing the institutions that covered for harassment and abuse for so long," Graves says. "This is no longer an issue that is just sort of a side issue for only people who are HR professionals to be concerned with; this is an issue that boards and the senior leadership of companies should be deeply concerned about."

Not everyone is optimistic that companies and their HR departments are truly changing. In particular, low-wage workers continue to face hostile employers when they bring forth their complaints, says Shelly Ruzicka, a spokesperson for faith-based worker advocacy group, Arise Chicago.

"In this moment, we actually sort of thought we would see more companies being willing to settle it...and actually taking a step in the right direction," Ruzicka says. "And instead, we have actually seen much more pushback and fighting their own workers."

HR leaders need to be more proactive following the start of the #MeToo movement. They need to ensure "that respect is part of the daily culture and not solely rely on polices that merely fulfill compliance requirements," Rebecca Blake, managing director, and Nancy Saperstone, senior HR business partner and communications specialist, at OneDigital, an employees benefits firm, writes for Workforce.

"While companies may already have policies in place, employers can no longer assume that employees are exclusively treating each other in this way," Blake and Saperstone write.

Companies must go beyond their own comfort zone in confronting alleged wrong doers who are star employees and top leaders if they truly want to show all employees that they are serious.

"A powerful employee can no longer be able to get away with it simply because of their stature in an organization," Blake and Saperstone note. "No employee, including top performers, are above the law and to truly create a workplace of respect, leadership needs to take action."

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), however, shows that employers are not stepping up. Only 32% of working Americans say their companies have taken new action to prevent and address sexual harassment.

The survey, which pooled 1,512 full- and part-time U.S. employees from Feb. 15 to March 1, found that 18% said the typical response from employers was to remind their workers of the existing sexual harassment training and resources.

The survey also reveals that only 10% of respondents said their companies added more training and resources to address sexual harassment and that just 8% had put in place stricter policies. Only 7% noted their companies held an all-staff meeting on the topic.

"The #MeToo movement has given business leaders an opportunity to finally take real action addressing a complex problem that has been pervasive for generations," says David W. Ballard, director of APA's Center for Organizational Excellence. "Our survey--as well as anecdotal reports--shows that too few employers are making comprehensive efforts that can have significant impact."

"Avoiding the issue is bad for employee well-being and business, but so, too, is a narrow, compliance-based approach," Ballard adds. "We know from psychological science that relying solely on mandated training designed primarily to limit the organization's legal liability is unlikely to be effective."

Last modified on Saturday, 16 June 2018
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