Are employers supporting men in the wake of #MeToo?
More men are speaking up in the wake of #MeToo, but are employers doing enough to support them?
The conversations that have taken place in the wake of the Weinstein scandal have shocked and dismayed us all, however the narrative remains resoundingly female and it’s important to remember that sexual harassment affects both men and women.
The law on sexual harassment applies equally to people of all genders.
As with most forms of discrimination, harassment is generally fuelled by inequality in work and power – the fact that younger women, employees with a disability, and members of minority groups are more likely to be harassed supports that theory.
In my own experience, nine times out of 10 the victim of the harassment is female and the perpetrator male. He will usually be in a senior position or a position of influence over the woman being harassed. But what about the remaining one out of 10 cases where the victim is male?
Reports of sexual harassment by senior female leaders are a growing occurrence and can create a particularly challenging situation for HR professionals.
While my one in 10 estimation is based on my own experience, some surveys and statistics considered in the Fifth Report of Session 2017-19 by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee suggests the figure is higher. It has since been suggested that between 7% and 20% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Is it more difficult for men to report sexual harassment? Perhaps. While the number of men coming forward is increasing, what should employers be doing to encourage men to report unwanted attention, and how can HR professionals handle allegations against senior female leaders?
Audit and assess company policies
A logical first step is to review the guidelines already in place, including equal treatment and anti-harassment policies. However, it’s not enough to simply those.
Good training is essential as it ensures HR teams thoroughly understand the contents of those policies and behaviour that would constitute a breach of expected standards and conduct.
Eliminate grey areas
There must be no ambiguity when it comes to guidelines and policies – there can be no doubt about what is and isn’t acceptable. Some companies have excellent clear policies in place but fail to make them available for everyone within the business.
The HR team must own those documents, but it’s equally important for employees and managers to know what their rights are and what is expected of them.
Foster a culture of openness
When men have been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, they often don’t feel able to report it. So approach this issue in a mindful head-on way; review reporting lines and create a culture of openness, engendering a feeling of safety for those reporting concerns.
It’s important that all employees understand confidentiality for all parties will be a priority. HR professionals must be extremely careful to protect the organisation as well as the individuals involved. Where evidence has been presented great care must be taken over how that information is handled.
Employees must feel comfortable with the idea of reporting sexual harassment long before any issues arise; HR leaders have an important role to play in fostering an environment that discourages feelings of shame or embarrassment that may feed into not reporting.
Act swiftly and with confidence
Managing allegations against senior female leaders shouldn’t be handled any differently to those against a male, but given that incidences are less frequent it often causes more disquiet. Investigations must still be made swiftly, regularly updating both parties on progress.
It is sometimes appropriate to initiate a suspension until allegations have been fully investigated, but it should always be given full and proper consideration with a decision made quickly and without fuss. Suspension is still generally seen as a neutral act, but should never be the default position.
The requirement for suspension depends on several factors, including the seriousness of the allegations and proximity.
Where suspension isn’t appropriate HR teams may need to make alternative working arrangements, without breaching confidentiality of either party. In a small organisation this may prove challenging and will need to be managed particularly sensitively.
Neither men nor women should be made to work with their alleged harasser while investigations are ongoing, and neither should those accused of harassment be subjected to any further exposure to the complainant.
Sexual harassment allegations are always challenging to navigate, but with the right policies and a commitment to fostering a culture of openness devoid of ambiguity employers can offer both men and women the same level of support should there come a time when they need to speak up.
Sarah Evans is an employment law specialist and partner at JMW Solicitors