The #MeToo movement went viral in October 2017. Today, it continues to spread awareness about sexual harassment and misconduct, but it appears little has been done by organization leaders to produce much substantial change in their workplaces.
A new study by leadership training company VitalSmarts shows just that. The study of more than 1,100 people found that only 31 percent of employees observed anything more than small changes to their workplace since the movement began.
Emily Gregory, vice president of development and delivery at VitalSmarts, has concerns about whether the #MeToo movement is simply a moment or truly a movement in the way that it creates long-term sustainable change. “There’s been so much awareness that has been built, but I think the behavior change is going to take longer to come,” Gregory said. She said part of why it’s hard for organizations to change is that the bad behavior has been entrenched for so long in workplace cultures. “Your world is perfectly organized to get the results you’re currently experiencing.”
Learning leaders are discovering that raising employees’ awareness about sexual harassment and misconduct through symbolic compliance or “check-the-box” training is not enough. Rather, a focus on behavior-based training, open communication and accountably from leadership is needed to drive change.
Lack of Behavior Change
According to Gregory, part of the reason there has been a lack of behavior change resulting from the #MeToo movement is that people have faulty assumptions about what drives that change. “We tend to think if people are aware and want to change their behavior, then behavior will change,” she said. “But behavior change is a lot harder. Just look at your New Year’s resolutions and whether you were able to quit smoking or lose weight.”
Gregory said the #MeToo movement has created enormous awareness and motivation for people to change, but society hasn’t provided a holistic approach to driving sustainable change. “We need to change not only individuals’ desire and ability to change, but the social and structural environment as well,” she said.
The VitalSmarts study identified four factors that have the greatest impact on conduct. One is confidence in the system. Of the survey respondents, 22 percent agreed that witnessing tangible changes at work encouraged them to speak up about harassment. Additional workplace training was another factor; 20 percent agreed that learning skills for how to speak up about past or current abuses in the workplace — beyond “traditional” sexual harassment training — encouraged speaking up. Gregory noted traditional awareness-focused harassment training needs to change to behavioral-focused training to have the desired effect.
The third factor is having a plan or precedent for speaking up. Forty-five percent agreed that having an idea of what to do if they see or experience sexual harassment would motivate them to speak up. Gregory said that is something that can be accomplished with behavioral-based training as well.
She said the last factor — inspiration or motivation to speak up — shows the power of the #MeToo movement. Almost half of respondents (48 percent) said hearing people speak about sexual harassment inspires them to speak up if they witness or experience similar concerns. “The power in the movement has been in creating this incredible social motivation and community of people whose stories are inspiring others to speak up,” she said.
Research by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative found that rates of observed misconduct are declining, coming close to historic lows, and reporting of suspected wrongdoing has reached an historic high. Pat Harned, CEO of the ethics research organization, said this may be because organizations are doing a better job of helping employees be able to identify wrongdoing.
However, the same ECI research found rates of retaliation for reporting wrongdoing have doubled in the past two years. “When people report and experience retaliation, or even if they believe that they will experience retaliation, that is a very big indicator that things within an organization are not good,” Harned said. While reporting and retaliation rise and fall together, the latest research found that retaliation rose significantly higher than reporting, which Harned said is troubling.
She said the significant increase may be due to two things. First, research has found misconduct is often done by leaders, who are more likely to retaliate. “When you report somebody at a senior level, you’re much more likely to experience retaliation because they’ve got more power to be able to retaliate,” she said. Second, Harned said retaliation is part of the culture right now. “We’re dealing with government leadership that doesn’t think twice about lashing out against people who disagree or making life difficult for people who are trying to raise concerns or report wrongdoing that’s happening.”
The ECI study also shows that little progress has been made across the country to implement a strategy for mitigating wrongdoing. Only 1 in 5 employees stated that their company has a strong ethical culture. “It becomes the natural pattern for leaders to focus on performance and the bottom line, but maintaining that culture from their perspective and owning it is a challenge,” Harned said.
VitalSmarts’ Gregory said any training that simply focuses on what not to do is going to fall short unless it proactively offers replacement behaviors.
She said the training should also focus on procedures for bystander intervention. “The #MeToo movement has focused so much on speaking up and saying, ‘Me too, I too have been a victim of this, I too have experienced this,’ ” she said. “But what we’re not realizing is there’s a whole village around me that said nothing in the face of my harassment. We have so many bystanders to this behavior who have put their heads down.”
Gregory said learning leaders need to offer training that will activate those bystanders. “Simply telling people they need to speak up is not enough; not even explaining the skills of how to speak up is enough,” she said. Rather, those skills need to be practiced.
“We would never give someone a book on buoyancy and then say, ‘Go swim because you learned the principles of buoyancy’; we would practice it with them,” she said. “Communication skills and sexual harassment training need to have that same element of behavioral-based practice around scenarios that people can relate to.”
Stephen Paskoff, president and CEO of Employment Learning Innovations, has been using this behavior-based approach for more than 30 years. Paskoff said there are five C’s that determine whether learning will be effective: commitment, communication, content, consequences and continuity.
To change the culture of the organization and subsequently change behavioral patterns, Paskoff asks his clients the following questions: Do the top leaders model values that reflect proper behaviors and are they willing to act on it as a business issue? Do you have ongoing communication regarding the issue (outside of a poster or annual message from the CEO)? When people do the right thing is it recognized all the way to the right side of the spectrum — and if you’ve done something seriously wrong, is that treated as a disciplinary matter? Is it an ongoing initiative?
“There is a difference between learning to document that you delivered it and learning that is designed to change behavior,” Paskoff said. “It’s not understanding the content — that’s the easy part. Most of the training fails because it’s focused on giving you examples and rules but not attacking or challenging the conceptual resistance that causes people to disregard the rules.”
Through Socratic learning — which is interactive and experiential — Paskoff said the training should convince people that the standard is important and convince them that if there are rule violations or inappropriate behavior, the employer really does want to hear about it and will fix it.
“Do you really think that Harvey Weinstein — or anyone else — didn’t know that there were behavioral standards that would make their conduct inappropriate?” he said. “It’s not that they didn’t know that — it’s that, for one reason or another, they chose to disregard it.”
He said the training first must get people to understand how bad behaviors affect productivity, performance and an individual’s own employment. Second, the training should be simple to understand and designed for the appropriate audience — not for lawyers. Third, the training must stick. “There should be organizational communications that are memorable, engaging and occur from the organizational level but by individual managers, too,” he said. “If you want people to speak up, you can’t just give them training once a year and it can’t just be through written messages from the CEO.”
Paskoff said CLOs should be able to work closely with others in the C-suite so they recognize this is a hard-line business issue, not just something to be sent over to be fixed by learning. “Learning can’t do it alone,” he said. “Learning needs the leadership of the C-suite.”
ECI’s Harned said her organization’s research has shown training does not change conduct. Rather, the purpose of training should be to communicate that leaders of the organization care about the issue. “It’s a communications effort as much as it’s an educational effort,” she said. “If leaders are expecting that their training is going to keep sexual harassment from happening, they’re deluding themselves,” she said.
She said the most effective way of training people and getting the message to stick is through personal stories and creating a dialogue between managers and employees.
Continue the Conversation
Gregory said part of why change is so hard for organizations is that they have been too intent on confidentiality to the detriment of open conversation. “Even when an organization has taken appropriate action in the past against an abuser, they often don’t say why that person has left the organization,” she said. “So while you might root out a bad apple, you don’t fundamentally change the barrel, or the social norm that was within the barrel, if you will.”
She said organizations must figure out a way to create more transparency. “That’s what #MeToo does; these women are standing up and saying, ‘We’re going to be bold about this.’ We need to have organizations be bold and equally transparent about what they’re doing — because I believe they are doing things — but we don’t talk about it so it doesn’t impact us.”
Transparency is important to training company Fierce Inc., which recently conducted a survey finding that while people are discussing equality issues with friends and family, they are not having those conversations with colleagues, especially upper management.
Of more than 1,000 U.S. employees surveyed, 57 percent said they have discussed gender equality, including the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. In the workplace, 25 percent discussed gender inequality with their colleagues, but just 3 percent discussed this topic with company leaders and 7 percent with their broader team.
“Leadership often does not feel comfortable talking about the issues and therefore their employees do not feel comfortable,” said Stacey Engle, executive vice president at Fierce. “Company leaders do not know how to approach it and companies do not have a strategic framework around how they’re engaging with employees on these kinds of topics.”
The study found that women are leading the conversation around issues of inequality. More than 60 percent of women discussed gender issues, while 53 percent of men did. Women are also less likely to see their organization as diverse; 70 percent of men believe their workplace is diverse compared with 60 percent of women.
Younger workers are also leading the conversation. Some 72 percent of those 18 to 29 reported having a conversation about gender inequality, while just over 50 percent of those over 60 say the same. “The fact that older generations and men talk about these issues less often than their counterparts is concerning given the majority of CEOs and company leaders today are older men,” Engle said.
One positive finding from the Fierce survey was that people feel more empowered than they did a year ago. Almost half (48 percent) said they are more likely to stick up for themselves, 40 percent said they are more likely to stand up for a colleague, and 30 percent are more likely to address a colleague directly for inappropriate behavior.
“Some of that is awareness of the movement and that you’re not alone,” Engle said. She said leadership should encourage this empowerment in employees and build trust. “When a leader is open to discussing topics that honor the issue and can move the conversation in a productive way, that’s a very critical skill in today’s environment.”
Engle said learning leaders shouldn’t sweep issues like gender inequality and sexual harassment under the rug. “I’d encourage chief learning officers to talk with the executive team around the approach on how to have strategic conversations around issues that impact their employees,” she said. “In this day and age, with social media and outlets like Glassdoor, employees are going to talk about it, and the more that you can model the types of conversation that exist in your workplace to move your business results forward and be inclusive, the better.”
While the majority of respondents in the VitalSmarts survey believe #MeToo is a healthy movement, 1 in 5 said the movement has been less safe for the “potentially accused,” as they believe it is now less safe to mentor or coach the opposite sex, to admit past or present harm, or to express genuine romantic interest in the workplace.
“There is such an overreaction and fear in a subset of the population,” Gregory said. In fact, 65 percent of men reported feeling less psychologically safe to mentor or coach a member of the opposite sex.
“Because of the traditional power hierarchy and the power structure — because ultimately harassment is about an imbalance of power — there has been a lot of focus on creating more safety for women to speak up, to be free of harassment, for all of that — and that’s very necessary,” Gregory said. “What’s happening, though, is that some men have relied on that power imbalance to feel safe themselves. So, I feel safe because I’m in power and this shifting of those power balances — this leveling of these power balances — is then frightening to me because I am losing what I have long considered to be my source of power.”
In reality, though, you don’t need power to feel safe in the workplace, Gregory said. “They’re reacting very defensively and pulling back,” she said. “They just want to feel safe. That’s what all people want.”
She said there are lots of easy ways to create that sense of psychological safety, to help men understand that safety is not about pulling away; in fact, it’s about getting closer. “It’s about looking at other people as human beings. It’s about having respect for one another,” she said. “If women are being denied the opportunity to be mentored, if women are being denied opportunities because they can’t be in the same room with someone, that’s denying women, and therefore denying organizations, to grow and contribute.”
Gregory said the #MeToo movement should be viewed as a catalyst, not as the change. “It’s amazing and empowering,” she said. “But it’s incumbent upon leaders of organizations and quite honestly employees in all organizations to say, ‘This was simply the catalyst for change’ — we now need to make the change, and we need to make it in ways that will be sustainable.”