Staff worried about #MeToo backlash over work relationships


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Women being believed and men rejecting toxic masculinity means we're on the verge of big change around harassment at work

The backlash from #MeToo and the Weinstein scandal is raising concerns among employees over how to conduct relationships in the workplace, according to Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California and author of White Working Class.

Speaking to HR magazine about her HBR feature, 'Managing #MeToo', co-authored with Suzanne Lebsock, Williams said “male employees are worried about asking out colleagues” for fear of allegations of sexual harassment.

“The bottom line is that a female colleague has signed up to be your colleague, not your girlfriend, so if a man wants to change that relationship he must ask her in a way that signals there’ll be no negative consequences whatever her answer,” she explained.

Pointing to sexual harassment workshops she has been delivering to businesses, Williams said “it’s not rocket science – it’s about giving men simple formulas around how to ask their colleagues out”.

“And for women it’s about recognising that their answer has to be taken at face value,” she said, adding that “there has to be a change in behaviour of both men and women when it comes to relationships in the workplace”.

However, Williams said policies banning relationships in the workplace are not the answer.

“I think that’s unrealistic in this day and age where people work such long hours,” she said. “There was a period where people were trying to enforce a no-dating policy. But when it comes to human relations you have to start out with what’s realistic and I think that’s a battle you can’t win.”

It can, however, be “a good idea” to have a no supervisor-supervisee relationship rule, or policies that require the supervisor to tell the company when that’s happening, Williams advised.

“If someone is having an affair with someone they’re supervising then that is rife – in the US – for a claim unless that person is treated exactly the same as others,” she added.

When supervisor-supervisee relationships do happen, Williams went on, it is usually the woman’s career that suffers. “Many companies who have these no-dating rules give the couple the choice of who will move on, which isn’t a good deal as the woman is usually in the more junior position so is the one who moves,” she said.

Another fallout of recent events has been some male colleagues saying they won’t mentor or take any closed-door meetings with young female colleagues. “This backlash suggests there is no way to thread the needle between not sexually assaulting someone and having a business meeting, which is of course not true,” said Williams.

"If male colleagues will now no longer have closed-door meetings with women then they need to also not do so with men; otherwise they will be discriminating against female colleagues because of their gender."

However, Williams said she believed that “we are on the verge of big change” for the better thanks to #MeToo. “There’s always a danger things will go back to how they were but I’d be surprised if they did now,” she said.

She said that the main reason for this “big change” is that “people now believe women”. “In the past women who complained about sexual harassment at work were slut-shamed and demonised, and this created a climate of permission where it was just seen as naughty,” she said.

The momentum around #MeToo has triggered what Williams termed a “norms cascade”, where “all of a sudden there has been a sharp shift in social norms”.

“I think part of this has come from the likes of the ‘slut walks’ in Canada where women responded in uproar to police saying ‘if women don’t want to be assaulted they shouldn’t dress like sluts’,” she explained. “By flipping around the slut-shaming and shaming the people who were trying to slut-shame women women have become resistant to it, as it was this type of behaviour that had intimidated women into silence in the past. I wouldn’t have expected that to have played such a big role but I think it has.”

Change is also being driven by the behaviours of men and a shift away from “toxic masculinity”, Williams said. “They find sexist jokes – which can be sexual harassment – as inappropriate and repulsive as women do but they’ve often been shamed to go along with them,” she said.

“When everything is a masculinity contest and about showing 'mine is better than yours' this creates an environment of reckless risk-taking... It’s not just women breathing a sigh of relief now, it’s also men."

Williams encouraged HR to keep reinforcing the point that “when people go to work they want to work”.

“HR needs to keep saying ‘she signed up to be your colleague not your girlfriend or sexual opportunity’,” she advised. “HR also needs to say that while we want people to bring their whole selves to work, there must also be a respectful work atmosphere that doesn’t present a risk to anyone.”

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