Workplace Sexual Harassment: Where We’re Headed in 2018

Mere weeks ago, TIME Magazine announced its Person of the Year: The Silence Breakers—those brave women (and some men) who courageously spoke up about their experience with harassment of all forms in the workplace. This article featured the courageous stories of countless household names, such as Taylor Swift and Megyn Kelly, numerous blue-collar workers, and even Tarana Burke, the individual who started #MeToo—the movement that helped women throughout social media share their stories of sexual assault and harassment.

In a similar act of solidarity against injustice, 300 actresses, directors, and writers launched a movement on January 1 called Time’s Up, declaring, “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.”

And just this past weekend, a message of hope was shared by perhaps the movement’s most recognizable voice, Oprah Winfrey who proclaimed, “Their time is up!” during her Cecil B. DeMille award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. “But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry,” Winfrey pointed out. “It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, and workplace.”

How We Got Here

The endless surge of women coming forward may have seemed sudden in 2017, but it has actually been simmering for decades. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along.

Throughout my 20-year career, gender barriers have always existed in the workplace. In most industries, men have represented the majority of the workforce and held a stronghold on virtually all positions of authority, leadership, and power. Consequently, companies were afraid of losing good talent. The most talented individuals often knew they were indispensable, and could therefore behave however they wanted without consequence.

Since then, however, we’ve seen a shift in workplace demographics, with women striking a balance in many offices across the country. In my industry, women are the majority. This shift across industries began holding workers to a higher standard, creating a backlash for harassers.

But this demographic switch wasn’t alone in sparking #MeToo and Time’s Up. From my perspective, the voices that launched this movement generated traction in the same spirit that sought to legalize gay marriage (#LoveWon) and the recognition that Black Lives Matter (#BlackLivesMatter). Each movement held a consistent trend: Once one person spoke out, others joined in. Having started a revolution of refusal, these movements gathered strength by the day.

The wave of sexual harassment accusations that swept across the country saw trends similar to those in #LoveWon and #BlackLivesMatter. In the beginning, victims were afraid to talk. But with time, women everywhere have begun to speak out about the inappropriate, abusive, and, in some cases, illegal behavior they’ve faced. And despite our progress, I suspect 2017 was unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg.

What to Do Now

In order to expunge sexual harassment, solidarity is required. To achieve this, we need to take a few important steps in the workplace:

1. Organizations must create a culture of safety and inclusion. Combine a clear stance against harassment with a straightforward reporting process. Reports should be followed by thorough investigations into accusations. This will deter sexual harassment while providing a safe space for individuals to come forward.

2. Organizations must define and clearly state what constitutes unacceptable behavior. Employees should know what’s out-of-bounds, and should stick up for dignity and respect. Clear policies and regular training will keep everyone on the same page.

3. Organizations must respond to unacceptable behavior. If a victim comes forward, the report must be investigated seriously. If someone was at fault, no special treatment should be given. This is crucial; research has shown ignoring or excusing bullying actually harms the victim more than the harassment itself.