In the wake of the #MeToo movement, some men are taking extreme measures out of fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment: They’re avoiding women in the workplace altogether. But such behavior can backfire and expose companies to a different problem: sexual discrimination claims.
A December 2018 Bloomberg article quoted Wall Street executives who are refraining from being alone with, mentoring and – in some cases – hiring women so they cannot be accused of harassment. Women are adversely affected by such anxiety-driven strategies because it limits their workplace opportunities, especially when men still hold 95 percent of major corporate CEO positions and own 60 percent of smaller businesses.
Finding Balance in the #MeToo Era
Between 1997 and 2017, sexual harassment complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fell steadily. Then came October 2017, when stories of workplace sexual harassment exploded and the #MeToo hashtag went viral.
By October 2018, the EEOC reported that claims alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12 percent from the previous calendar year.
The #MeToo movement has instigated important conversations about what constitutes appropriate interactions between the sexes in the workplace – particularly when one person has a supervisory position over another – and about what people should do when they observe behavior that could be considered harassing. But are we moving toward separation of the sexes so men won’t be afraid of being wrongly accused of harassment?
This line of thinking is counterproductive to productivity, morale, employee retention and company culture. Excluding women from meals with colleagues, meetings, travel, mentoring and other workplace opportunities that men in the company receive represents unequal treatment. It’s poor business strategy – and the isolating actions some men believe will insulate them from sexual harassment accusations are the same behaviors that could lead instead to sexual discrimination claims.
The truth is that it’s very unlikely a man would be falsely accused of improper behavior if he consistently treats all colleagues with dignity and respect. This can be accomplished without gender segregation. The proper response is for men to follow a simple guideline: If they wouldn’t exhibit certain behaviors with a significant other or a recording device present, they shouldn’t do it at all.
To avoid both sexual harassment and sexual discrimination lawsuits, employers should:
- Create an open dialogue in the office about sexual harassment. Make it a safe topic for everyone to discuss, and make sure every employee, at every level, understands the company expects employees to treat each other with dignity and respect at all times.
- Ensure that company policies clearly define what harassing behavior is and what discriminatory actions are. Link the two together, and offer guidance on how to avoid both.
- Train managers so they know what the company expects of them and deems appropriate.
- Establish a process through which all problems and complaints can be promptly and properly addressed.
Men severing contact with women in the workplace as a means of avoiding harassment accusations may send a company hurtling toward a sex discrimination claim. A far more constructive approach is for company leadership to create a culture of respect where all employees feel included and are treated fairly and professionally.