These are interesting times for Google. Last week, The New York Times spilled the beans about a $90 million “exit package” Android creator Andy Rubin was purportedly paid to leave quietly after a sexual harassment allegation in 2014. Then came the news that Google has fired 48 other people over the past couple of years, including 13 managers, for the same reason (but sans exit packages).
Of course, it’s not just Google. In the 12 months since the ouster of Harvey Weinstein brought awareness of the anti-sexual-harassment movement MeToo into sharp focus, hundreds of other U.S. executives—some famous, many less so—have gotten the boot. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that allegations of misconduct rose 12%, the first increase in five years. The EEOC’s lawyers filed 41 separate sexual harassment suits, a jump of more than 50% from 2017. Between litigation and other proceedings, the agency required a total of nearly $70 million to be paid to plaintiffs, up 22% from the year before. And none of that even begins to count what’s happening at the state level, or what employers are paying in private settlements behind closed doors.
It’s a long way from over, and all the possible ripple effects aren’t yet clear. For now, some observers wonder what impact #MeToo might have on the gains that women have struggled to make in business. “What worries me is that we’re starting to see a backlash,” says Michelle Lee Flores. “Unfortunately, it’s based on misinformation.”
A partner in employment law at Akerman in Los Angeles, Flores works with corporate clients nationwide on crafting anti-harassment policies and training. As she sees it, a juicy TV news sound bite or sensational Internet headline rarely tells the whole story—yet leaves people with the impression that they know all about it. So, she and her fellow lawyers meet many (mostly male) managers these days who are panicking unnecessarily.
“You hear people say things like, ‘Look what happened to So-and-So at Such-and-Such Company! He was fired after just one accusation!'” Flores says. “That’s not an accurate understanding, because the public almost never sees the whole history of someone’s behavior.” What happens behind the scenes is what counts, she adds: “Someone can be accused of one specific instance of harassment, and truthfully deny it, while still admitting to a whole pattern of other incidents which violated company policy”—and which no one outside the company ever gets wind of.
Knowing almost nothing about the real reasons someone was fired may not, alas, stop some people from deciding that the way to stay “safe” is to avoid working alongside women. Or traveling with them. Or sending them out on plum assignments. Or promoting them. Is this starting to sound way too familiar from decades ago? What year are we in again? “It might sound extreme,” Flores notes. “But I’ve heard male executives express a real concern that having female colleagues ‘could come back to bite me’.”
New research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests she has a point. In a survey of 18,000 U.S. employees, at all levels across 15 industries, about one-third (32%) of executives say they’ve “changed their behavior” in the past year because of a greater awareness of the hazards of sexual misconduct at work, including risks to morale (23%) and employee engagement (also 23%). Only 21% said harassment “has never been an issue” in their companies.
Some of the steps managers told SHRM they’ve taken: Male mentors can no longer be assigned to women less senior then themselves. Working in the office after hours is no longer allowed “for groups of fewer than three employees, and must include a manager.” No touching ever, and “asking permission to enter a 3-foot space, and NEVER [caps theirs] closer than 3 feet.” One manager told SHRM he’s “scared to say anything” to or about women, ever.
It’s not hard to imagine all kinds of subtle consequences—and, ultimately, damage to women’s careers—from so much caution. And what happens to office romance? Is it dead, or just a lot more fraught than ever? Ideally, we could keep what was great about male-female diversity and just get rid of what wasn’t.
Some leaders seem willing to try. Consider, for instance, that almost 40% of the executives in the SHRM study said their own reaction to #MeToo has mainly been to be more “careful” or “mindful” about locker-room humor and sexist jokes. “That may not be a bad thing,” especially in tech, says Sarah Cooper, a former designer and manager at Yahoo! and Google, where there’s a long tradition of “men saying things that make women uncomfortable, and the women just having to ‘be cool’ and laugh it off.”
Cooper, who wrote a tongue-in-cheek new career guide for women called How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, quit Silicon Valley to chase a lifelong dream of doing stand-up comedy, but over the years she saw plenty of other women flee IT for less happy reasons. “People need to have fun at work,” she says. “But having the kind of toxic culture that drives talent away isn’t just a loss to women—it’s a loss to companies, too.” Too true.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.