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Has the #MeToo Movement Affected Workplace Sexual Harassment Policies?

Last fall, the phrase “Me Too” echoed across the country and around the world. Although the phrase originated with activist Tarana Burke, it was popularized in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano asked her followers on Twitter to reply me too if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted.

Much of the conversation around #MeToo centered on sexual assault, particularly as it was revealed that a number of famous men — including director Harvey Weinstein — had sexually assaulted actresses. However, #MeToo was also about workplace sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments to touching and assault. These behaviors are all part of the continuum of sexual violence. While these actions may not all be considered crimes under different state laws, they all serve a similar purpose: to assert power and control over the victim.

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a forum titled Transforming #MeToo Into Harassment-Free Workplaces. A number of experts spoke at the forum, including law professors, employment law attorneys, legislators and leaders of non-profit organizations. Together, they described a number of changes that they had seen that gave them hope for a better future.

These changes include an update to federal tax law that would prohibit tax deductions if a nondisclosure agreement is used in a sexual harassment or abuse lawsuit. In addition, 125 pieces of legislation have been introduced in 32 states designed to address sexual harassment, and go beyond federal regulations.

Unfortunately, one major update came from a Supreme Court decision on May 21. This decision will make it more difficult for victims of serial sexual harassers or abusers to join together and sue an individual or company. The ruling held that employees who sign arbitration agreements with their employers cannot file a class action lawsuit against their employers, in a break with longstanding precedent. This will make it much more difficult for employees to sue over sexual harassment, as arbitration typically favors employers.

The forum also highlighted innovative ideas to promote harassment-free workplaces. These include color-coded systems for wait staff to use in restaurants for harassing conduct from customers, and an online documentation and reporting system, Project Callisto, to help victims join together and get legal help. Another organization, tEQuitable created a confidential platform to address issues of bias, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace.

Whether these ideas will be successful over the long-term remains to be seen. What we do know is that education and training can be incredibly useful in preventing workplace sexual harassment. Although sexual harassment training offered by employers is usually ineffective — designed mostly to shield employers from liability — the type of training offered by Blackburn Center is geared towards ending sexual violence. We offer our sexual harassment training free of charge to businesses, organizations and community groups in Westmoreland County. Contact us today to learn more about the services offered and how you can schedule a training for your workplace.

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