The Time’s Up initiative may have recently blossomed due to support from Hollywood’s leading ladies, but its roots are bound up with a far less glamorous industry.
The nascent movement was inspired by an open letter published last fall from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization composed of current and former female farm workers. The letter, addressed to the women of Hollywood, shared workers’ #metoo stories and identified the common thread that links women and minorities in all industries: a culture of pervasive sexual harassment.
While the initiative’s message has largely been well-received, many employers may feel like this level of publicity around harassment is a threat to a company’s brand or reputation, says Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that translates research and trends in sexual-assault prevention into best practices.
But that type of thinking needs to be re-framed, she says.
“I encourage company leaders to understand that engaging in this movement is an opportunity to be a brand ambassador,” says Palumbo, “demonstrating to all employees that this moment is being acknowledged and that any harassment claims will be addressed and handled appropriately.”
And HR leaders are in the best position in an organization to harness this movement and re-frame the conversation around sexual harassment and accountability, says Hina Shah, an associate professor of law and the director of the Women’s Employment Right’s Center at Golden Gate University’s School of Law in San Francisco.
“What’s most shocking isn’t the prevalence of sexual harassment, but how often it’s enabled and perpetuated throughout an organization by the systems and structures in that workplace,” she says. “Too often, HR leaders look at sexual harassment through a legal-liability lens, but it’s important to broaden the role of HR to facilitate deeper understanding of how to eliminate discrimination and bias in the workplace.”
But the issue of sexual harassment often extends far beyond HR’s reach, says Cynthia Shapiro, a former HR executive who is now a consultant and author of Corporate Confidential.
“The problem is in the policies and precedents set at the top,” she says. “HR professionals are limited in how they can handle certain situations.”
Many executives often feel that HR exists to protect the business, Shapiro says. “Sure, [HR] can also help employees, but only if the employee’s interest runs in the same direction of the employer’s.”
Time’s Up may be the tool that HR leaders have been searching for, she says, because they can harness its momentum to protect the business while also protecting employees.
“If you’re an HR person working at a company that’s been sweeping something under the rug and your hands have been tied, this is a great time for you to say to the offenders, or leadership, that it’s too dangerous to continue with this behavior,” she says. “This moment in time puts HR leadership in a unique position to help protect an organization and its people.”
What many HR departments have been doing to prevent harassment clearly isn’t working, she says. “Point out the elephant in the room and acknowledge the inherent conflicts of interest that exist within the HR system that need to be resolved,” she adds.
But simply firing all the alleged harassers is an “untenable long-term goal” says Shah, because sexual harassment is “incredibly prevalent.”
“If we really want to shift the culture around sexual harassment and violence,” Shah says, HR leaders should conduct interdepartmental anti-harassment study groups that discuss the legal requirements of preventing harassment while also contextualizing the role of power and gender in the workplace and society at large.
Ultimately, what may help push the movement further toward its goal is for top HR executives to form a think tank and head to Capitol Hill, says Shapiro.
“What’s needed is legislation that HR teams can implement with protections for both the victims of harassment and the HR teams that investigate the allegations,” she says. “Right now, the best thing this movement can do is scare people who used to think they could get away with irascible behavior. Fear is a great motivator and really all we have until we reach formal federal and state legislation.”