How companies can respond to the #MeToo movement

*Content Warning: Non-graphic discussion around sexual violence*

In this post you will find…

  1. A list of things companies can do in response to the recent media coverage of sexual harassment in and outside of the workplace
  2. Sample company-wide email to employees from leadership

Unless you’ve been overseas without any internet connection or have been taking a break from all kinds of media, you probably have seen more than a dozen #MeToo social media posts following the Harvey Weinstein case, maybe even from people you know.

Gender-based violence is rampant. It’s all around us. It’s been all around us.

Thanks to courageous women of color like Tarana Burke (started the #MeToo hashtag 10 years ago), Ellen Pao (stood up against the notoriously sexist world of Venture Capital and continues to fight sexism in Silicon Valley publicly), and countless folks who are speaking out despite material risks that threaten their future, the momentum to break the silence around sexual violence is building.

We still have a long way to go in being able to have a more inclusive and broad dialogue around gender-based violence, beyond what the media has been highlighting as the archetypal narrative (e.g., cis-women in the workplace being harassed by men in higher positions). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the extreme violence the trans community — especially black and brown trans women — faces every day in the narrative around gender-based violence.

At the root, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia share the same lineage of sexism. But this topic deserves a whole other blog post for another day.

My company Awaken has been receiving a lot of inquiries around how companies and leaders can respond swiftly and thoughtfully to this #MeToo movement.

So what can companies do?

1. Acknowledge it. And recognize your company is not immune

Talking about sexual violence is never easy, but acknowledging the problem is the first step. Acknowledge the #MeToo campaign and the need to fight misogyny and sexism in and outside of the workplace. Take a stand. There’s no “gray area” here and it doesn’t even have to be about “politics” — make sure your employees know where you stand.

No company is immune from the issue of sexism and harassment because the issue is bigger than individual companies. Our entire society is built on systems of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and rape culture. The ways in which we shame, blame, and doubt survivors of sexual violence (“what were you wearing?” “are you sure that’s what happened?” “were you drunk?”), how our legal systems are built to center the needs of perpetrators, and how early education around sexual violence focuses on reactionary caution (“buy your own drink” “don’t walk alone at night” “cover your skin”)… these are all examples of how we subconsciously and consciously perpetuate the cycle of gender-based violence in our society.

No one is immune from being socialized. We have so much unlearning to do. The very first step is acknowledging the problem is in the very fabric of our culture that contains us all, and that we are all responsible.

2. Empower your managers

That inspiring Marketing-approved note from the CEO isn’t going to matter if your managers aren’t equipped to support their teams. Do they know what resources employees can leverage? Are they creating a culture in which their team members feel safe reporting any concerns around harassment? Does your manager training include proper education around dealing with incident reports, sexual harassment, and microaggressions?

Ensure your manager training goes beyond how to conduct annual performance reviews. Empower them with skills to create a safe working environment for everyone. Culture change starts within people, not with processes.

3. Create and share a resource list

  • Sexual harassment reporting procedure and policy: Clearly communicate the process for reporting sexual harassment or assault. Provide legal definitions for harassment so people know there is a wide range of behaviors and actions that can constitute harassment. Many incidents do not get reported, so understand you may need to provide additional channels (not through HR) to communicate any issues. Many companies have been observed implementing a “zero-tolerance” policy, where first offense of sexual harassment result in immediate termination of the harasser. Be careful with your zero-tolerance policy, though, as it has been observed that people are less willing to report incidents because they fear their colleagues getting fired immediately due to this blanket policy, when what they want is behavior change or a lighter repercussion. Consider providing varying degrees of reporting mechanisms to treat offenses of different degrees appropriately. Additionally, there have been criticisms around the zero-tolerance policy, as it originated from the criminal justice system and mirrors the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately reprimand marginalized folks.
  • Internal resources: If your company has sexual harassment training materials, make sure they are easily accessible and up-to-date. Some companies opt to provide support groups or form a task force to educate employees on sexual violence.
  • Medical benefits: Does your company provide mental health service benefits to employees through health insurance? Let people know of these benefits and encourage folks to use them.
  • Local/external organizations: Research organizations providing services and resources around sexual violence such as RAINN (they have a speakers bureau if you’re interested in panel speakers), Men Can Stop Rape, and if you’re in the Bay Area, Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR).

4. Review your sexual harassment training curriculum and make it better

Many companies miss the mark on providing effective sexual harassment training. Even I roll my eyes at the old school, didactic sexual harassment training that just strives to create fear around the topic, but fails to accomplish culture change. Traditional sexual harassment trainings are often focused on compliance, rather than culture change. It’s no wonder most people have no clue how to intervene when they observe off-hand sexist remarks or understand what real support looks like for survivors, even after a 2-hour long required training about sexual harassment.

Reflect on how comprehensive and inclusive your current sexual harassment training is: does it address the wide range of sexual violence? Does it dispel harmful myths and misconceptions about sexual violence? Do you go beyond the gender binary when describing sexual harassment?

See if your sexual harassment training includes these messages that seek to dispel misconceptions about sexual harassment (source: Stanford Sexual Harassment Office):

  • Harassment can be perpetrated by anyone, to anyone, regardless of one’s gender identity. It’s easy to perpetuate the stereotype of only women being victims and men harassers, but harassment can happen by and to people of all gender identities. Harassment can also occur between two people with the same gender identity.
  • Third parties who witness harassment or are aware of it may also be victims of harassment, not just the person who experienced direct harassment.
  • Harassment can be verbal, physical, or environmental. Harassment doesn’t require physical touch.
  • Focus on the impact, not intention. Well-intended compliments, jokes, and requests can all be considered harassment depending on the impact.
  • Harassment is not always motivated by a desire for sex. Sexual harassment is often motivated by dominance, power, and/or bullying.

Ultimately, effective sexual harassment training strives for culture change, not just compliance.

5. Be thoughtful about hosting internal discussion spaces

Sexual violence is a tough and nuanced issue to navigate in and outside of the workplace, and requires a thoughtful approach. Some companies have been hosting discussion groups and wondering how to create a productive and safe spaces for open dialogue.

Given the nuanced nature of the topic, please consider the following factors before sending out any calendar invites:

  • Goal of the discussion
  • Clear target audience (e.g., open to all, survivors-only, gender-specific, etc.)
  • Role and skillset of the facilitator(s)
  • Accessible and appropriate space and time
  • Follow-up action items and commitments, if any

To provide further details, I wrote a whole separate blogpost on how to host thoughtful discussion meetings at work. Check it out here.

  • Option 1: Open to everyone. Will the space be open to everyone? If so, the discussion should remain at a high level, discussing company policies and stance on sexual harassment.
  • Option 2: Gender specific closed space. Alternatively, you can opt in to provide a gender specific (e.g., closed space for women identified folks) space: there are pros and cons to having a closed space for one gender identity group, the main benefit being a sense of security and safety, particularly for survivors of violence perpetrated by someone of the opposite gender. Be careful when specifying who is welcome in the space, as sexual violence is not limited to women / female-bodied people only.
  • Option 3: Survivors only. If you’re wishing to provide a healing space for survivors who may be feeling overwhelmed or triggered by the recent events, it’ll be important to spell this out and also find ways to protect anonymity. Building a sense of community among survivors and people with common experiences is one of the most powerful ways to empower people. However, the question is whether your organization and culture are optimal for this type of empowerment. You will definitely need a skilled / experienced facilitator for navigating this space.

To determine the right target audience and what types of space to provide, you can try to field feedback from people leaders and employees on how people are feeling, what questions they have, and what support they need.

c) Assess the role and skillset of the facilitator(s)

Depending on the goal of the meeting, ensure you have the right people to take on the facilitator role. Do you need to bring in a third party facilitator with the right skill sets and experience? Don’t assume anyone can do this!

Having an ill-equipped facilitator can cause more harm — navigating conversations about sexual violence requires accurate knowledge and inclusive facilitation skills.

d) Secure the right space and time

  • Consider the size of the group depending on the goal of the conversation. Discussion group size of less than 15 people is optimal for open and honest discussions.
  • Consider the physical space and meeting time — if you want anonymity of participants, open conference rooms and high-foot-traffic spaces are not recommended. Depending on the target audience, be mindful of what space you utilize to hold the space and the time in the day.
  • If you’re thinking about holding a virtual space, consider similar parameters around confidentiality and time.
  • Create a set of agreements and solicit input from the audience prior to beginning the discussion — these agreements can include confidentiality, right to pass, etc. and will help create a safe space where people can be more open.

e) Action items and commitments

Depending on the goal of the meeting, there may be specific action items or commitments that need to be addressed after the conversation. What are they and who is responsible? Be prepared to follow-through if you make commitments.

6. ASK FOR CONSENT

At the core of trauma relate to sexual violence is the feelings of disempowerment and lack of agency. It is critical to give people agency and sense of empowerment throughout the healing process. One important idea to keep in mind is engaging folks with their consent.

This includes…

  • Providing content / trigger warnings before bringing up sexual violence in conversations (formal or casual setting) or communications.
  • Asking people if they want to talk about it before talking to them about it.

Remember that even hearing certain words or seeing certain images can be painful and triggering to people who have been impacted by sexual violence. You can never assume someone’s past experiences — so err on the side of caution.


It’s not easy engaging thoughtfully in important topics such as sexual harassment in the workplace, but no one ever said culture change is easy. To make things more tangible for all you inclusive leaders, I wrote a sample company-wide letter you can reference.

Here’s a sample email I drafted to an imaginary team:

*Content Warning: Non-graphic discussion around sexual violence*

Hi Team,

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the public discussion surrounding sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. As I’m sure is the case for you all, I have seen countless social media posts with the #MeToo hashtag, and it breaks my heart to know some of my dearest friends and colleagues have not been immune to the experience of sexual violence.

The issue of gender-based violence is a cultural one and it runs deep in our society. While we pride ourselves for having a great culture, our company is not immune, because we are all part of a much larger culture.

To solve the issue of workplace harassment we need to go beyond compliance, and aim for culture change. Building an inclusive culture is more than just a marketing slogan at Awaken, and I want to highlight actions we are taking as an organization as well as resources available to you:

  1. We are revisiting our sexual harassment training curriculum to ensure the content addresses culture change, beyond legal compliance.
  2. We are revisiting our manager training curriculum to include inclusive leadership skills building.
  3. We have a survivor-centered reporting procedure that prioritizes the safety and well-being of incident reporters. We are always open to suggestions on how to make the reporting process more accessible, so please let me know if you have any feedback.
  4. We encourage all employees to take advantage of the mental health services benefits. All managers are required to prioritize their team’s physical and emotional health needs and collaborate to make workload adjustments as needed.
  5. To encourage dialogue this month and beyond, we are hosting 2 general discussion groups and 2 survivor support groups facilitated by third-party expert facilitators. Depending on your feedback, we will look to continuing safe discussion spaces in the future.
  6. We have a resource sheet (attached) that lists external organizations you can check out for additional resources.

I’d love all of us to be vigilant in educating ourselves and others. This includes being courageous about intervening toxic behaviors no matter how small, and being vulnerable in admitting mistakes and practicing accountability.

Please contact me directly if you have any questions or feedback about how we can do better. I’m always listening.

Thank you to those of you who showed incredible courage in standing up for what’s right and sharing your #MeToo stories. Our company stands by you and we will create positive change together.

Sincerely,

Michelle


Try out some of these tips and report back in comments.

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About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

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