On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours, #MeToo went viral, launching a movement that has put a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. But what have we learned since then?

If nothing else, it seems that a lot of employers have failed to prevent sexual harassment or protect its victims. Recent research by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, professors at Harvard and Tel Aviv University, supports that conclusion . Their study of workplace interventions against sexual harassment has shown that most companies have been relying on ineffective employee training and formal grievance procedures that protect the employer and the harasser more than the victims. Neither of these kinds of interventions work.


Two reasons:

  1. Most anti-sexual harassment training has been focusing on forbidden behaviors.
  2. Most formal grievance procedures are not designed to protect victims or stop harassment.

The problem with “forbidden behavior” training

Research shows that focusing on forbidden behaviors tends to put men on the defensive. This kind of training makes men more likely to blame the victims and to think that women who report harassment are making it up or overreacting. Even if men don’t react with open hostility (some do), they’ll make jokes about the training scenarios and about harassment itself.

Usually, the day we talk about sexual harassment is the day everyone harasses me as a joke.”
Pam in The Office, Season 2, Episode 2

Perhaps even more worrying is research showing that men who are inclined to harass women before training become more accepting of such behavior after training.

The solution

Dobbin’s and Kalev’s research shows that bystander training works. In bystander training, participants learn to recognize signs of harassment and give them tools to intervene swiftly and effectively to prevent escalation. It works because it focuses on the bad behavior of other people, not on the trainees.

The research also shows that male managers pay close attention during this kind of training. This is partly because they feel they’re being given new tools that will help them solve problems they haven’t known how to handle in the past. It is also because they are assumed to be interested in learning how to recognize and curb problematic behaviors in ways that will improve the overall work environment.

The problem with formal grievance procedures

Studies show that only about one in 10 victims makes a formal complaint. Ignoring the harasser, downplaying the behavior, or leaving the company without telling people why, are far more common responses to harassment than making formal claims.

Why are there so few formal complaints? Legalistic grievance processes that impose burdensome and insensitive requirements of proof, retaliation, and few negative consequences for the harassers.

  • The burden of proof

These are sensitive and difficult issues, and victims dread having to engage in a legalistic process where they have to relate potentially embarrassing details about what happened.

It is also nearly impossible to persuade companies that sexual harassment has occurred without a confession or a witness. The standard of proof is generally higher than what courts require in sexual harassment cases.

  • Retaliation

Regardless of the outcome of an investigation, retaliation is common.

A survey of female employees in the American federal government, cited by Dobbin and Kalev, found that two-thirds of women who had reported their harassers were subsequently assaulted, taunted, demoted, or fired by their harassers or friends of their harassers.

Confidentiality rules do not prevent retaliation. Both the accused and the victim often tell their friends – even before a formal complaint is lodged. Managers who hear complaints may talk to others in an effort to find the truth. Word inevitably gets out, and co-workers who are friends of the accused may retaliate.

  • Few consequences for the harasser

Even if companies are persuaded that sexual harassment has occurred, they often respond by offering to transfer victims to other departments or locations. Not only that, women who file harassment complaints end up, on average, in worse jobs and poorer physical and mental health than do women who keep quiet.

The solution

Employers need to establish systems that offer a range of different options for filing and resolving sexual harassment reports, including informal, formal, anonymous, and confidential options.

One option, which has been gaining traction in universities, law firms, and major news organizations in the U.S., is to establish an ombuds office.

An ombuds office is an entity that sits outside the organizational chain of command and works independently of HR and management to resolve sexual harassment complaints. This system is informal, neutral, and truly confidential—only the ombuds officer needs to know of the complaint. This approach has two advantages over the current system: It allows accusers to determine whether to make their complaints known to the accused, and it avoids legalistic hearings entirely.

A second option is to retain neutral third-party mediators to resolve cases, with the goal of restoring professional interaction rather than punishment.

Mediation falls somewhere between a formal grievance procedure and an ombuds office. Mediators receive claims, notify the accused, and try to find solutions that satisfy both sides. The system is less adversarial than a legalistic grievance procedure, and it suits many victims who simply want their harassers to stop their offensive behavior. However, the victim must feel comfortable having their identity revealed to the accused, and both parties must be committed to finding a solution. Obviously, this approach doesn’t work where those conditions are not met, nor is it suitable for the most egregious cases of harassment, where the only sensible solution is to fire the perpetrator.

Where do we go from here?

A lot has happened since that tweet in 2017. #MeToo became a wake-up call for organizations neglecting to implement measures to prevent sexual harassment. And today, many organizations are still coming under fire for failing to improve the way they handle sexual harassment claims.

At the very least, we believe that organizations need to review their training programs and grievance procedures to ensure they incorporate state-of-the art knowledge about what works. According to our research, that includes a combination of by-stander training, voluntary mediation, establishing ombuds offices, and strengthening formal disciplinary systems.

At On the Agenda, we offer evidence-based consulting and scalable learning tools to help organizations stay out of the #MeToo spotlight and create more inclusive, harassment-free workplaces. Drawing on internationally recognized research, we help chart a course towards diversity and inclusion that fits your organisation’s needs – and leads to success.

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