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I started seeing the #metoo hashtag being posted by friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook one Sunday evening, and by the next morning it seemed that every woman I knew had chimed in. For those who don’t know, a picture started circulating on social media that read:
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
In France, the more blunt #balancetonporc (which roughly translates to “denounce your pig”) started trending as well.
In less than 24 hours, the hashtag was used more than 200,000 times on Twitter. As a workplace harassment investigator, the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence does not surprise me. But the use of the hashtag made me wonder, if so many women are willing to speak out on Twitter, why is sexual harassment notoriously underreported in the workplace? What is it about social media that makes these discussions happen?
An obvious answer is that there’s safety in numbers. While it was probably very difficult for the first few women to speak out about their experiences in a public forum, sharing this information might seem less intimidating once #metoo became a trending topic. This has also been widely discussed in the media with respect to the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal. The recent allegations – many of which also came out on Twitter – set off a chain reaction, and now more than 70 accusers have come forward.
Another possibility is that reading about the experiences of others serves as an eye-opener regarding what “sexual harassment” really is. A 2014 Angus Reid poll found that one of the main reasons people fail to report sexual harassment in the workplace is because they think the issue is “too minor.” A comprehensive study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) identified the same problem, and noted that having specific incidents of harassment outlined in workplace policies greatly increases reporting. When people were asked if they had been harassed in the workplace, only one in four responded in the affirmative. When they were provided with specific acts of harassment – such as crude jokes – 60 percent of women responded that that they had experienced harassment.
Finally, speaking out on social media might feel safer than reporting harassment in the workplace because of the fear that workplace reporting can lead to retaliation. One study of public sector employees found that two-thirds of those who complained about workplace mistreatment felt that their reporting had led to retaliation. The EEOC study similarly found that 75% of individuals who reported workplace harassment faced some form of retaliation. This included reprisal from superiors – such as damage to their career – and social retaliation from peers. A year-long study by the Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, published this week, also found that workplace harassment is under-reported due to fear of retaliation.
So what can employers do to make workplace reporting feel safer?
- Bring “safety in numbers” to the workplace. One way of doing this is to share statistics on workplace harassment during training sessions. If employees know that senior management is aware of how wide-spread harassment is – and that everyone else in the workplace has been made aware of it too – they are more likely to speak out about their own experiences.
- Provide examples of what harassment and sexual harassment are in workplace policies. Many workplace policies use a definition of “harassment” lifted from the legislation. While there is nothing wrong with this, on its own it can leave employees with a false or incomplete picture of what constitutes harassment. Including plain language examples of harassment and sexual harassment can help employees identify problematic behaviour if it arises.
- Take a firm stand on retaliation. In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act prevents workers from being penalized for exercising their rights under the Act. However, not many workers take the time to read the Act, and a lot of workplace harassment policies fail to mention reprisal. Policies should make it clear that both workers and witnesses can bring workplace harassment issues forward without fear of reprisal, and that retaliation will not be tolerated from the accused, or anyone else. Giving employees several options for reporting harassment – such as contacting Human Resources directly if they are not comfortable reporting to a manager or reporting harassment through a confidential hotline – can also help alleviate fear of retaliation.
Clearly, there are stories of workplace harassment that are not being told, and employers have a responsibility to ensure that victims of workplace harassment and violence feel secure reporting their experiences. Legal obligations aside, everyone wants to work in a space where people feel safe, valued, and respected, right? Me too.
About the Author: Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.