illustration showing a scale tipped in favor by a stack of pink female symbols, versus the single blue male symbol on the other side of scales
Analysis | From Pivot Magazine

Me 2.0

The harassment problem is deeper than you think. And the solution is bigger than most companies would like.

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again is an adage that just doesn’t fly at Facebook anymore. In the wake of #metoo, the movement’s supporters have commended the company for a one-shot policy it has when it comes to wooing co-workers. Here’s how it works: if you decide to ask a colleague out on a date, and they say no, that’s it. If they say they’re busy or evade the question, that’s it. You get to ask once, and then you never get to ask again. Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., has also adopted the rule, an example of the kind of tone-setting measures employers are using in response to sexual harassment.

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last October, the focus has widened from the elite industries of entertainment and media to the hyper-male corridors of tech, academia, law and finance. Inside ordinary offices, the issues take on a different tenor. When there are no famous actors leading the public outcry, there are only policies and practices.

Tracey Epp, a partner practising labour and employment law at Pitblado LLP in Winnipeg, has taught sexual harassment prevention to companies for 28 years. Since Weinstein, she’s seen a spike in incident reporting. She’s now on the receiving end of many phone calls from employers who are being forced to dust off their policies and see if they’re effective in action.

They’re not. “We’ve been trying to solve harassment by thinking outside the box for the last 30 years and we’ve been failing miserably at it,” says Epp. Most companies have policies around the most common forms of outright harassment. What they require is the courage to enforce them. Others have tried disclosure policies, which dictate that employees in committed relationships must declare them, particularly in the case where there’s a power imbalance or a direct-reporting relationship. There are “love contracts,” documents that fledgling co-worker couples must sign to confirm that they weren’t coerced into the relationship and that they agree to comport themselves professionally. Corporate policy largely tries to dissuade workplace dating altogether—an impossible task. One recent survey by the data company ReportLinker estimates that 15 percent of people meet their partners at work.

In the end, no dating edict will solve the fundamental problem of workplace inequality, a power imbalance that challenges women on several fronts, including financially. (At last check by Statistics Canada, Canadian women earn 87 cents to men’s $1.) Addressing it, therefore, should be about instituting broader policies that are not just disciplinary responses to male indiscretion. This involves approaching inequality as a business problem, and doing what CEOs do all the time: manage a culture change.

The first step to change a culture is to understand a culture, especially its defenders. On this point, we’re in for a shock. Harassment is not an issue that will simply age out as a “woke” generation takes over from older traditionalists. According to a February 2018 Angus Reid poll, Canadian men ages 18 to 34 represent the group that is most against the values of #metoo. The numbers are troubling: a fifth of millennial men think it’s okay to use sexualized language at work. A quarter think it’s fine to make comments about a colleague’s body. A quarter think it’s acceptable to display or distribute sexually suggestive material at work, or to stand in a co-worker’s personal space. Thirty-eight per cent think #metoo is overblown and receives more attention than it should. This gulf between values means that, according to the Angus Reid study, nine out of ten working Canadian women have, at some point in their career, taken steps to prevent being sexually harassed.*

The problem isn’t going away. A quarter of millennial men think it’s fine to make comments about a colleague’s body.

The second step is to create a sense of urgency with the company’s department heads. In many industries, human resource departments don’t work to protect the employees who come forward. They work to protect the companies who employ them. Consider Uber’s HR protocol when then-employee Susan Fowler revealed documented examples of sexual harassment by her manager, someone the company protected because he was a “high performer.” Such practices have consequences. After Fowler recounted her dismal HR experiences on her blog, CEO Travis Kalanick resigned.

What else should employers do? We already know. Promote talented women. Put people in charge who don’t need to be trained to stop making off-colour jokes. Monitor bias. Implement blind hiring where it’s possible. Eradicate the idea that some people are just a good or bad “fit,” based on abstract intuition rather than competencies. Level pay scales. Many corporations implement a salary calculation formula that takes into consideration factors like previous experience and role. The radical idea here is to make the formulas public, then circulate actual salaries among employees. And before arguing that this will increase employee turnover and lower motivation, consider that Whole Foods has posted its salaries internally since 1986 and continues to thrive.

There may be no more effective way to even the playing field, however drastic that may seem to the men and women who work at the company. There will be outrage. But every big problem warrants a big solution.

*A previous version of this article stated that nine of out ten Canadian women have taken steps to prevent being sexually harassed. In fact, the distinction applies to nine out of ten working women in Canada, according to a comprehensive study by Angus Reid. We apologize for the error.