After two years #MeToo is still impacting corporate culture

As legal complaints skyrocketed, companies turned to training programs and cultural change

Stacy Wescoe//February 13, 2020

After two years #MeToo is still impacting corporate culture

As legal complaints skyrocketed, companies turned to training programs and cultural change

Stacy Wescoe//February 13, 2020

It’s been two years since the #MeToo movement took social media by storm.

While the initial movement was aimed at well-known Hollywood executives and high profile professionals, the movement quickly spread as women, and men, shared their stories of sexual harassment in a wide variety of workplaces and demanded changes.

Now, as 2020 begins those involved in business law say the work environment is a very different place and the reverberations of #MeToo are still being felt by employers and employees.

Jennifer Craighead Carey –

The first and biggest impact in the wake of #MeToo was in the number of cases filed as more victims of harassment felt emboldened by the movement and that they would be more likely to be heard. Jennifer Craighead Carey, a lawyer with Barley Snyder’s Employment Practice Group in Lancaster, said data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed a dramatic spike in legal complaints in 2018, following the initial #MeToo push.

There was a 13.6% increase in sexual harassment complaints, the first-year-over year increase in more than a decade, she said. Moreover, the number of adverse findings against companies from those complaints increased 23%, with an average monetary penalty of $56.6 million.

George Hlavac, an attorney with Hoffman, Hlavac and Easterly, a South Whitehall-based firm that specializes in employment law, said the biggest change he has seen was in the increase in corporate training on sexual harassment. Training allows companies to show they took proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment should a complaint arise.

“Without a doubt the biggest correction employers have made is in the training,” he said.

Hlavac called the #MeToo movement the biggest thing to happen to the issue of sexual harassment since the Anita Hill testimony against Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991, and it has brought the issue back into the national dialog.

“Harassment had fallen into the background in training,” he said. “Companies weren’t taking it very seriously.”

Now, he said, companies realize that they have to be having the conversation with all levels of employees from the rank and file to senior management, and lawyers like  him are being asked to come in an cover all of their legal training bases.

George Hlavac –

To put it in perspective, Hlavac said, he’s provided legal sexual harassment training to 420 businesses since the #MeToo movement began two years ago. Before that he averaged between 12 and 24 per year.

“What hasn’t changed is people’s behavior,” he said, “Despite all the attention given to harassment, the number of complaints remains up.”

The brighter side of that, said Craighead Carey, is that those complaints aren’t necessarily leading to litigation, with companies handling such situations better than they had in the past.

“What I did see is an uptick in the calls from companies about what to do when getting a complaint,” she said.

Since the #MeToo movement emboldened people to complain, Craighead Carey said employers are finding they need to do more training to prevent sexual harassment and improve the process of reporting if it does happen.

In the past, someone with a sexual harassment complaint’s direct report could be the perpetrator of the harassment. Systems are being developed so that an employee can file a complaint through human resources, or some such entity, without having to confront the harasser directly.

“There’s also just a heightened sense of companies wanting to do the right thing,” she said. “The #MeToo movement got employers to pay attention.”

The movement also drew the attention of a number of state governments. While there have been no changes to federal laws, a number of states have changed laws to protect employees from sexual harassment, Craighead Carey said.

Pennsylvania, however, is not yet one of them.

Non-disclosure agreements were a big area targeted by states. New York and New Jersey were among the states that passed laws addressing non-disclosure agreements that allowed companies to pay off victims in exchange for their silence, which often allowed the harasser to continue the behavior, Craighead Carey said.

“With non-disclosure agreements [sexual harassment] is brushed under the carpet and nobody knows it’s still a problem,”Hlavac said.

Other states laws are being enacted to require sexual harassment training in the workplace, or changing the statute of limitations so that victims can come forward to make a complaint from the past.  Such changes make it easier for victims who felt afraid at the time, to come forward.

But most of the action is with companies making changes voluntarily.

They have reason to act.

There is concern about the risk of losing good employees, damaging the company’s reputation and money spent on lawsuits or settlements. Financial investment managers are starting to demand accountability from companies they are looking to invest in.

According to the Investment Management Due Diligence Association, more “professional investment allocators are asking about sexual harassment during the fund manager due diligence process.” A recent survey showed 26% of allocators asked about sexual harassment, vs. 11% in 2018.

That means a sexual harassment problem could make a company less attractive to investors.

Where the #MeToo movement goes from here remains to be seen. The EOCC has yet to publish figures of complaints and litigation from 2019, so other than anecdotal evidence that employees are continuing to fight back against harassers, there are no numbers to support it.

Both attorneys say the issue isn’t going away quietly and the changes they are seeing are likely to become permanent fixtures in corporate cultures as companies strive to build a safer and more civil work environment.