sexual harassment workplace research hero.jpg

HR and the Weinstein Effect

I was at a social gathering in Manhattan last week when someone mentioned the “Weinstein effect,” to which another responded, “How in the world did we get here?”

In a matter of months, we’ve gone from what once may have been an isolated scandal resulting in the downfall of a disgraced individual, to a near-daily deluge of media coverage of allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct on the part of famous people, followed (usually) by swift consequences for the accused.

The Weinstein effect now has a Wikipedia page, which describes the phenomenon as people leveling allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men. It refers to revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct made public in October as the ignition event that sparked similar allegations which, so far, have left few industries and sectors unscathed.  

We’ve seen superstars in the media and entertainment industries brought down, lawmakers pushed to resign, and corporate titans “step away” or be pushed out of their organizations in the wake of allegations against them. Stories in the media reference the events of the past three months in terms such as purge, reaping, and reckoning. And while some call it a moment, others say it’s a movement driving real and lasting change.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) conducted a survey of 335 professionals this week to gauge how Human Resources is helping their organizations navigate this development as it unfolds in real time. How prepared is HR? How has the Weinstein effect impacted the ways in which we discuss sexual harassment in the workplace? What are organizations doing well, and what needs to improve?  

Preparing for new (and renewed) sexual harassment complaints

The survey found that one in five organizations are taking steps to prepare to handle an increase in sexual harassment claims. And another factor worth considering is the possibility that employees who reported allegations of workplace harassment in the past but believe that they weren’t adequately heard at the time, may re-open their grievances.

A quarter of respondents reported that their organizations have a response plan in place or are currently devising one in the event that public allegations are made against senior-level executives.

How effective is training? Not very.

The survey found that there’s plenty of room for improvement in some areas, starting with adequate employee education.

Over 70% of survey respondents reported that training on preventing sexual harassment is mandatory in their organizations, but just under half (49%) said that such training is provided effectively to a high or very high extent. This is not surprising, since the compliance-driven training is usually delivered in such a way that reinforces stereotypes and fails to change thinking or behavior.   

Communication about behaviors can be improved

Less than half of those surveyed said that their employers are effective to a high or very high extent at providing preventative education about behaviors that constitute harassment.

This speaks to the need for explicit communication about workplace conduct. What constitutes crossing the line in an organization? Are there degrees and distinctions?

This isn’t something that should be left to ambiguity or (worse) outdated training that’s delivered by watching a few videos or breezing through a PowerPoint deck.

Employers need to use clear, concrete language to communicate standards of behavior to the workforce so that there is no uncertainty about what is acceptable and what isn’t.  

Transparency and clarity are also important in terms of ensuring that employees understand how the organization manages sexual harassment complaints. Less than half of survey respondents said that their organizations effectively communicate to employees about how sexual harassment claims are handled. Are anonymous complaints accepted? Is a third-party used? Is there a hotline? If employees aren’t comfortable going to their manager or HR, is there an ombudsman they can speak with? What can employees expect to happen once a formal complaint has been made? With whom should they raise concerns?

Trust in HR to handle sexual harassment allegations isn’t high

Just under half of respondents (47%) reported that they believe HR to be trusted to handle sensitive issues effectively in their organizations to a high or very high extent, with almost an equal number expressing less enthusiasm. Showing a perhaps unsurprising disconnect, HR professionals who participated in the survey gave themselves high marks—81% judged HR to be trusted in their organizations to a high extent.

Finally, nearly half (47%) of respondents said that their organizations aren’t planning to take any new actions in response to heightened awareness about sexual harassment. Among those organizations that have taken or plan to take steps, nearly a quarter (23%) have or plan to have their CEO send an email communication to all employees affirming the company’s zero tolerance policy against harassment and 20% of organizations plan to revise their current training approach.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp’s Managing Editor & Vice President of Research 

i4cp members: download the pulse survey report for additional data.

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.