Three years ago, the hashtag #MeToo went viral and fueled a cultural reckoning that saw millions of people coming forward to disclose sexual harassment and assault, many for the very first time. A few months later, 300 women in Hollywood joined the chorus calling for change, lighting the match that fueled the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an initiative that connects working people, especially low-paid workers, who’ve experienced sex harassment at work with legal and public relations support.
Since then, much progress has been made fighting sexual harassment in workplaces across the country. Many states have strengthened sexual harassment laws, expanding the legal definition of what qualifies as harassment, limiting the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), and requiring reporting and training. And the reverberations have extended beyond institutions to individuals: an independent, national CBS News poll found that one-quarter of working Americans, including 29% of working women, say they are more likely to report an incident of sexual misconduct in the workplace than they were before. More than half of young men say it has made them rethink some of the ways men behave toward women.
Yet, far too many workers are still unsafe at work today. Even more alarming? Too few employers are stepping in to protect them. In fact, according to a new report by the National Women’s Law Center, more than 7 in 10 people who experienced workplace sex harassment and sought help from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund faced some form of retaliation. Retaliation can take many forms, some subtle—and not so subtle: contract workers being told there is no more work for them, TV writers being fired, restaurant and retail workers being assigned few shifts, and those on track for promotion being denied, to name just a few. Moreover, of the workers who reported harassment, nearly 3 in 10 said nothing was done about it.
To be clear, workers are doing their part: Our report revealed that nearly two in three people reported the harassment they experienced to their employer. And they are reporting what any responsible employer would dread having in its workplace: explicit sexual comments, belittling remarks about how the worker was incompetent or should be let go because of their sex, and sexual assault—the type of physical harassment that more than one in three people reported to us.
Harassment and retaliation have devastating effects on people’s lives, both in and out of the workplace. More than one in five people said that workplace sex harassment negatively impacted their economic or financial well-being. Nearly a quarter of those who reported a negative economic impact said they had trouble finding another job. Nearly one in five people shared that the harassment had a damaging impact on their mental health. No workplace is immune from the scourge of sexual harassment and abuse. And it is on employers to do better.
When employers take serious steps to prevent retaliation for reporting sex harassment, they:
Initiate policies that prohibit all forms of retaliation and provide multiple channels for employees to report retaliation when it occurs.
Retaliation can take many forms, ranging from threatening someone’s job or salary to changing a job assignment to small but frequent indignities that impair a worker’s ability to do their job. Employers need to make clear all these forms of retaliation are prohibited and will have consequences, including retaliatory actions that may occur long after sexual harassment has been reported.
Establish thorough and transparent investigation protocols and follow them on a timely basis.
Make sure your investigation protocols are clearly spelled out and are followed with each report that comes in. This should include protocols for when an independent entity should be brought in to conduct investigations involving, for example, senior executives, and provide protections for workers if needed while an investigation is conducted. Some organizations contract with an outside law firm or company to do their investigations because the human resources department or the general counsel’s office is seen as an entity that is there to protect the employer, rather trying to ascertain the facts.
Establish multiple channels for reporting retaliation, as well as any sexual harassment complaints, including anonymous reporting mechanisms such as an ombuds.
Some workers prefer an anonymous reporting mechanism because they fear retaliation.
Do not impose any NDAs, confidentiality requirements, non-disparagement clauses, no-rehire provision, or arbitration requirements on those alleging harassment or retaliation.
Make clear that you will not enforce any existing NDAs, arbitration requirements, or other secrecy measures that could be understood to bind individuals who experienced harassment to secrecy.
Provide regular updates about the status of an investigation, the outcome, and the corrective action to the person who made the complaint. To the extent possible, communicate the same information to your employees, or make the same information public—especially if the harassment allegations are public. If complete transparency is not possible, explain to your employees why.
Show solidarity with survivors.
When your workers come forward, they need your support, which can take many forms, starting with time off for counseling and/or treatment, and career assistance for those who suffered harassment and were forced out of a job. Consider the implications of any public statements on survivors and the culture within your company.
Listen to your employees, including those who have come forward about harassment, and build avenues for safe-space conversations about your workplace culture and policies and procedures.
Providing ways to gather input from your employees, such as climate surveys or working groups, about your workplace culture and procedures will inform your policies and build an inclusive and equitable workplace where sexual harassment and retaliation will not happen.
Retaliation against those who come forward or blow the whistle on sex harassment doesn’t just harm your workers—it harms your company. Those who come forward are workers who should be valued. Rather than “take down” your company, these are the very people who might help save it.
Fatima Goss-Graves is the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center and a cofounder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Tina Tchen is the president and CEO of the Time’s Up Foundation and a cofounder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is housed at and administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund, is supported by the Time’s Up Foundation.