Why #MeToo Compliance is Vital in the Workplace

12 December 2019 - Elizabeth Nichols

In just two years the #MeToo movement has generated headlines worldwide, as women globally have revealed their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of high-profile figures, politicians and celebrities. Reputations have been damaged irretrievably, as situations have been revealed. As the #MeToo website says, “we want perpetrators to be held accountable.”

What underpins #MeToo is a new assertiveness from women who are unwilling to accept the status quote and tolerate male behaviour that has for so long been a ‘norm’ in the workplace. Now, every business in the UK needs to be on top of its #MeToo compliance.

A #MeToo allegation against an employee should be regarded in as serious a light as a cyber breach, according to some experts.

#MeToo has disrupted the world of HR. A #MeToo allegation against an employee should be regarded in as serious a light as a cyber breach, according to some experts. It is a corporate crisis that can cause immense reputational harm, workforce disruption, employee activism and litigation. Share prices can quickly tumble and businesses could be brought to their knees.

HR functions must think beyond showing anti-harassment videos and getting signatures on training documents. Robust procedures should ensure reporting of concerns is done without fear of retribution, especially when allegations involve senior management. Risk assessments, driven by a zero-tolerance mentality, should examine problem areas to help harassment-proof the organisation. Should an allegation go to Court, it is vital the company demonstrates this is an isolated incident, not systematic or caused by a prevailing company culture.

If an allegation arises, conversations with those concerned need to be conducted quickly, but thoroughly, clearly documented and treated with full confidentiality. All allegations must be handled consistently and, if the situation escalates into a media crisis, a co-ordinated PR response should run to pre-agreed procedures. Legal expenses cover, backed by D&O cover that can also help individual directors defend their case, are now almost business ‘essentials’.

…make no mistake, a harassment claim for an SME is a very serious issue and can be damaging for a business, of which all parts can be affected.​

The #MeToo movement has now gained such momentum that other movements, which can cause reputational harm rather than allegations of harassment, have arisen from it. October 2019 has seen a #MeTooPay movement launch, as UK-based business women vehemently fight gender pay gaps and expose those companies still rewarding male employees more than their female counterparts. A case in point is that of BBC Newswatch reporter Samira Ahmed, who has launched a claim against the BBC under the Equal Pay Act.

Negative headlines around #MeTooPay will most likely quickly damage brand equity and consumer loyalty, so companies without an in-house PR department, would be well-advised to look for insurance cover that provides crisis PR assistance should the need arise. Addressing the issue, to both avoid reputational damage and be able to continue to recruit talented women is, of course, the best risk management strategy.

The societal change underpinning #MeToo will not be reversed. The power of the movement is now continually evidenced, be that through cultural media output such as ‘Killing Eve’ and the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, through women leading the fight to impeach their President, or female-led climate change protests. The #MeToo hashtag has revolutionised our business and social world.

Whilst the large corporates and the celebrities make the headlines, make no mistake, a harassment claim for an SME is a very serious issue and can be damaging for a business, of which all parts can be affected. If not dealt with in the correct manner, it could spiral out of control very quickly. For business owners and managers, behavioural consideration must now be part of working life because there can be no defence is pointing to what was acceptable behaviour in the past.

To get the right covers in place to mount a defence, if required, or manage a reputational crisis, please make contact. Not every allegation will have its foundation in truth and fighting an unjust charge is vital, if your business and individual reputations are to emerge untarnished. 

UK: #MeToo Compliance — Two Years In, “Wait-And-See” Is No Longer An Option
Last Updated: 14 October 2019. Article by Sarkis Jebejian, David B. Feirstein P.C., Shaun J. Mathew, Lisa Madigan, Erica Williams, Lauren O. Casazza and Kim B. Nemirow, Kirkland & Ellis International LLP and https://www.kirkland.com/publications/kirkland-governance-update/2019/10/metoo-compliance

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