Two years ago, #MeToo caught fire. Survivors of sexual violence and harassment stood up, spoke out, and demanded action. Their collective courage built a movement, one that has generated important progress nationwide.
Over those two years, state legislators have introduced approximately 200 bills to address workplace harassment, and 3,600 people have sought justice with help from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Survivors and workers bolstered this movement by protesting to expose pay disparities, and workplace environments rampant with sexual harassment and abuse.
This is historic progress—but there needs to be action to sustain it. And one important stakeholder who has the power to build on the #MeToo progress is the business community.
Recently, the Business Roundtable made headlines for its statement declaring that corporations have a larger social responsibility to promote “an economy that serves all Americans,” rather than catering solely to shareholders and dividends. It’s a significant recognition by the business community of the role and power it has in making the world a better place. As CEOs begin to carry this statement forward, a plan to build a workplace environment that promotes safety, accountability, and equity is an essential—and beneficial—component for communities, families, and the bottom line.
After all, investing in safer working environments helps business. When employees are happy, they are more productive, by around 12%. Companies that focus on cultivating and employing a diverse workforce create higher financial returns—and dispel a risk factor for harassment, a homogenous workforce. Businesses that level disparities and have women represented in leadership positions improve performance and have less turnover. And demonstrating a commitment to doing social good, like taking steps to make workplaces safer and more equitable, appeals to millennials, a rapidly growing consumer base who reward companies with positive social responsibility records.
There are certain actions businesses can take—beyond simply firing a bad actor or taking a one-off approach to addressing harassment—to build safer, more equitable workplaces.
First, focus on fixing inequities within the workforce, like pay and leadership gaps, and diversity. Institute an annual pay audit to monitor pay disparities and correct those gaps, make the minimum wage a living wage of $15.00 per hour, and start a leadership program to mentor staff from underrepresented communities, particularly women of color, to move up the corporate ladder. Not only will these steps level disparities within the workplace that have been shown to foster harassment, but they will also help create and maintain economic and social stability at home, which can lead to happier, more productive employees.
Second, demonstrate that survivors will be believed and supported. Establish an anonymous harassment reporting line for employees and end policies that limit justice for survivors, like forced arbitration and non-disclosure agreements. Taking concerted action to listen to and support survivors will reinforce an expectation of dignity, respect, and safety within the workplace—and will go a long way to change work culture problems that leave room for harassment.
Finally, business leaders must promote accountability for both management and employees at all levels. Release reports to the public on anonymized harassment complaints and company-wide efforts to address them, involve all employees in interactive trainings about harassment prevention, and build a representative team dedicated to workplace values that can ensure the organization continues to move toward establishing a safer and more productive workplace. These measures will not only build an expectation of business-wide accountability, but will also allow for employee buy-in to creating and maintaining a culture of mutual respect.
Movements are made up of moments. Right now, the business community is facing a moment where they can both strengthen their businesses and help their employees. Business leaders have a real opportunity to lead on this issue and build better, safer workplaces that make a positive impact on workers, companies, and our nation as a whole.
Esta Soler is the founder and president of Futures Without Violence.
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