#MeToo, NowWhat? Ridding Sexual Harassment from New Jersey Workplaces

 

By Keiona R. Miller, Councilwoman, North Plainfield 

I sat across the table from a stranger at a coffee shop listening intently as he described how a female associate had wrongfully accused him of sexual harassment. Emotional and visibly angry he fidgeted in his chair before he finished his story by announcing boldly “so we [a group of men] got rid of her.”   

He repeated his dramatic tale a few times as if to convince me of his innocence. I waited patiently for him to speak his piece and then asked “Do you understand why your female colleague interpreted being looked over for a professional opportunity after turning down your request for a date as sexual harassment? I could see in his eyes that his anger was turning towards me, so I followed up swiftly with another question “Did you or did you not ask her out for a date?” My new friend, with whom I’d just traded stories and sipped coffee, seemed aghast by my response.  He suddenly stood up from the table, grabbed his things and forcefully muttered “O.K. so you don’t believe me,” and left the store. 

I leaned back in my chair and began to recount the many times in my professional career when I was in that woman’s position, when I experienced a MeToo Moment. Just to recall a few that are appropriate for this publication: After sitting through a staff meeting wherein I had fully engaged my work colleagues and added valuable input, which was readily accepted and immediately implemented, I was called into the office of a male supervisor who explained to me “You were not brought in to that meeting to make decisions, you were supposed to sit there and be cute.” I remember another time when an older female co-worker walked up to me and pinched me on my cheek, no not the cheek on my face, then followed up by telling me how attractive she thought I was.  Some of you may be gasping, but the reality is one in every three working women reading this article will have had a number of similar experiences throughout her career.   

TWO MAJOR REASONS WHY THE PROBLEM PERSISTS 

One of the biggest obstacles to cracking down on sexual harassment is our collective silence on the issue.  Statistics show that 71% of women who are harassed do not report it. This is a very unfortunate reality.  It perpetuates suffering for victims while simultaneously enables perpetrators.  

Why the silence? Among the reasons researchers found for why victims choose to remain silent are: intense feelings of shame and guilt for not being “strong enough” or “smart enough” to avoid the situation,  fear of retaliation from the harasser- often resulting in job loss,  lack of support or resources to counter retaliatory actions, and the most common reason- fear of not being believed. Women who speak out are oftentimes labeled as crazy, overly sensitive, emotional, attention seekers or they are accused of fabricating their stories for monetary gain.  

A second major obstacle to cracking down on sexual harassment is a general lack of knowledge and understanding of two key elements: One) What behaviors actually constitute sexual harassment, and Two) The detrimental effects that harassment poses to individuals and organizations. 

There might be a section in your employee handbook that lays out certain guidelines for workplace conduct, but does your employee handbook provide a specific list of inappropriate behaviors that constitute sexual harassment including non-sexual actions such as the use of intimidation, hostility, or exclusion from professional activities based solely on gender?  Even if your municipality has the most well-written anti-harassment policy, here are a few more questions to consider:  Has the policy been read and interpreted similarly by all employees?  Is the policy being adhered to? Are there visible reminders in place to keep employees conscious of your organization’s commitment to enforcing the policy? Are there measurements in place to assess attitudes towards sexual harassment in your workplace culture? And is the policy being enforced? 

As elected officials, we all know that the establishment of any policy is only as good as its enforcement. However, before we move to enforcement we must take necessary steps to ensure that employees have been properly trained and informed.  Sometimes people do better when they know better. 

The impact of sexual harassment on individuals can range anywhere from minor feelings of irritation or moments of social awkwardness to severe physical and psychological damage such as PTS (post-traumatic stress), clinical depression, high blood pressure, anxiety and sexual dysfunction.  Consequently, survivors of sexual harassment may experience a breakdown of personal relationships, lowered self-esteem and decreased productivity at work which can lead to loss of employment and under-employment for many years to come. 

To employers, the effects of sexual harassment are varied and can be financially catastrophic. Left unchecked, continued sexual misconduct by employees may contribute to higher absenteeism, higher employee turnover, lower employee morale, and overall decreased productivity which undoubtedly, negatively impacts the organization’s bottom line.   Additionally, the costs of sexual harassment lawsuits can result in losses in the millions. 

A NEW VIEW 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new. But, America’s view of its acceptability is changing. Incidents that might have remained hidden under the rug, laughed off, pushed aside, or paid- off in secret settlements five or ten years ago are now showing up as hashtags on social media pages. The internet has delivered a fresh, uncomplicated and very effective weapon to combat this age-old crisis, and more individuals are joining the cause every day. 

The “MeToo” movement founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a Civil Rights Activist from Bronx, New York has taken on wings with social media and has been fortified by the recent takedown of once powerful perpetrators like Roy Moore, Louis CK, Harvey Weinstein, and the list continues… Women today are emboldened like never before to stand up and to speak out for themselves.  Finally, the silence has been broken. Now what? 

 

PREPARE your municipality for A new era 

 

  • Update your current policy.  If your organization existing policy has not been visited during the past ten years, then most likely it needs to be revised to include definitions of sexual harassment with descriptions of improper conduct.  

 

  • Plan to provide sexual harassment training, but a word of caution: we owe it to ourselves to ensure that sexual harassment training does not become a mere perfunctory activity on our organization’s to-do-list.  Training should be implemented as a serious and necessary preventive action. 

 

  • Be mindful of gender dynamics- Do not assume that all employees will interpret the policy and training in the same manner. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that “employee perceptions of how exactly “sexual harassment” is defined by a company’s policy can, in effect, eliminate or reshape the meaning of these policies and contradict the norms and values of the companies that try to enforce them. They suggest that training should acknowledge the gender dynamics of harassment.  

 

  • Establish and implement measurements to assess attitudes towards sexual harassment in your workplace culture.  This could be a brief employee survey. 

 

  • Provide clear, visible and consistent reminders that harassment will not be tolerated. 

 

  • If possible, establish a third-party source for receiving complaints. 

 

  • When there is a report of sexual harassment, believe the victim first. 

IN YOUR TOWN  

Join the movement. April is nationally observed as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Use this opportunity to educate staff, coordinate local events, and lead awareness campaigns. Joining the movement may help to break the silence in your municipal offices and local communities. 

In April 2017, I introduced our resolution declaring April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in North Plainfield.  It was a small action, but it was a step in the right direction. It sounds the alarm that we as municipal officers recognize that there is a crisis and that we are committed to providing the resources and coordinating the assistance that is necessary to facilitate change. I encourage you to join me by taking action against sexual harassment in your local communities and across the state.  Thank you for reading. 

Keiona Miller is a Councilwoman in North Plainfield.

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