What It's Like To Be a Workplace Harassment Trainer in the #MeToo Era

Heightened vigilance about sexual harassment has ushered in overdue changes and overreactions.



I have been a workplace consultant for over 30 years. I'm frequently called in to intervene in cases of harassment, discrimination, bullying. And I can tell you that the #MeToo movement has been good for business. These days, many of my clients are retaining my services voluntarily and pre-emptively, not just when the law or a negotiated settlement has forced them to offer training. Organizations that used to give their employees the minimal, cheapest training are now asking for face-to-face sessions with their staff—the most effective option, but also the most expensive.

Many of the changes brought by #MeToo are long overdue. More vulnerable people now know that they have the right to say "no" forcefully and have a reasonable expectation that they will be taken seriously when they report misconduct. Only now are there finally enough strong, capable women in positions of power—in politics and in the corporate world—to take complaints seriously and make changes stick. And the work is far from done. A recent survey conducted by the nonprofit CARE found that 1 in 4 men in the United States and seven other countries believe it is OK to expect sex from an employee.

Well before #MeToo, I was working a management training job when I noticed something odd. Jim, the vice president of a boutique semi-conductor company, asked everyone to work through him and never contact the CEO directly. This made me curious, so I observed him interacting with others and noticed that women seemed to avoid him. Taking a few aside, I learned that Jim had roaming hands. He considered himself a ladies' man and a few women feared that they would lose their jobs if they didn't accept his dinner invitations. I gathered evidence about his behavior to bring it to the attention of the CEO. To his credit, after confirming what I'd learned, the CEO fired Jim. Some time later, Jim's wife and I were at another event and she screamed across the room: "You had my husband fired!" I sure did. These days, more and more CEOs are able to see the signs themselves or take input when needed.

But with headway comes the potential for abuse. Without proper protections in place, a minor accusation can cause unnecessarily life-ruining fallout.

Bystanders increasingly recognize their personal, individual responsibility to speak up when they see bad behavior. But well-meaning third parties can create problems where there are none. Take Stanley, an employee at a Fortune 100 tech company. An employee had reported Stanley to HR after hearing him stage-whisper "How's your sex life?" to another female employee we'll call Ruth. The human resources staff confirmed that indeed Stanley had used those words, and they were ready to fire him when his manager intervened and asked that I be brought in.

I interviewed both Stanley and Ruth. Although they worked in different departments they were friends and occasionally lunched together. Both reported that the last time they had lunch, Ruth had cried on Stanley's shoulder that she and her boyfriend had broken up. The next time Stanley saw Ruth was that day in the cafeteria. He was inquiring about whether she'd gotten back together with her boyfriend, and Ruth understood that this was his intent.

Clearly, Stanley's choice of words could have been better—and whispering it across a room containing lots of other people was using poor judgment. But instead of losing his job, Stanley got some counseling and a reminder to be sensitive to his whole audience.

Most people can solve problems and resolve misunderstandings with calm conversation, if only they are given the space and opportunity to do so. Janelle, a petite woman, was walking down a long corridor when two of her co-workers entered the corridor. Seeing her they each took her by one elbow and walked/carried her to the end of the corridor, opened the door, and let her down. They thought they were being cute. She felt humiliated.

She reported the incident to HR. The men were about to be fired when I intervened. With the woman's permission, I talked with the men and explained how their attempt at friendly humor was received. I suggested that they apologize since their intent was not to harm her. I brought the three of them together, and the woman explained her position. The men apologized, and everyone went back to work.

When I arrive at a job, I am increasingly hearing from men who tell me they are afraid of making any contact with their female coworkers. No longer are mentors taking mentees to lunch. If they meet with them at all, it is with the door wide open. Some CEOs are also telling me that they are reluctant to continue hiring women, particularly in management positions. These are all parts of an inevitable backlash, as some men overcorrect their behavior out of fear.

Investigators, too, are retooling their behavior in the wake of #MeToo. But in their zeal to be responsive to the alleged victim, they may wind up condemning the accused without due process.

Joe, a senior executive, was fired because "he should have known" that there was a group of men in his employ that told dirty jokes when he wasn't around. I was asked to review the report condemning him and offer a second opinion. Because workplace investigations are often single-sided, the accused is frequently denied the right to challenge claims made about him—indeed, he's often prohibited from knowing the identity of his accuser at all. In Joe's case, the attorney who was doing the investigation exhibited bias from the start, asking loaded questions and systematically discarding information that showed Joe couldn't have known about the jokes.

Investigator bias is extremely common. In the past, investigations of harassment complaints almost exclusively favored the accused. As often happens, the pendulum is now swinging to the other side before finally—hopefully—finding a place in the middle. As we adjust to a new era, accusers and accused alike should see gains as we learn to listen to long-ignored people with important on-the-ground knowledge. But we must be careful that the bullied don't become the bullies.