leadership

Leading Responsibly in the Time of #MeToo

It is easier to blame the other guy. It is harder to take a thorough and honest assessment of our work culture.

We have seen this campaign before in various forms over the past two decades – the demand for equal pay and appropriate work environments. The reiterations always move the conversation forward a bit and result in at least some level of change. However, after a while, our focus moves away to attend to other business concerns. It’s not that we forget; we just believe the system will change now that we’ve tweaked a policy or two and provided more training.

The #MeToo movement has been marching toward workplaces for decades. Now that it has arrived, how will our businesses react? Will we take the same policy and training approach? Or will we advocate for more? Do our actions demonstrate that we value work environments free from sexual harassment and similar power dynamics? Or do we simply say we do? The choice is in the hands of our workers and employees, but requires bold leadership and conscious action.

Willingness to Accept Being Broken

Key to systemic change is accepting that many of our work environments are, in fact, broken and have not yet been able to be fixed. Our culture of “talk” seems to always reflect a desire to achieve the best and be perfect, but the character of our workplaces is not created by words. It is our choice in consistent action over a period of time that creates our character. So we have to ask ourselves, what exactly have we been consistent with that has resulted in businesses continuing to be the target of claims of sexual harassment and pay inequity?

Overcoming the Fear to Take Ownership

We all know it is easier to blame the other guy. It is hard to take a thorough and honest assessment of our work culture. Inevitably, a business fears the potential of creating or pointing out areas of legal exposure and does not want to tacitly admit wrongdoing. This concern is real and often impedes movement toward true systemic change. So business leaders can choose to make it very simple. We can use the #MeToo movement as a basis to re-examine where we are, identify where we want to be and take ownership of the pathway to achieve a different and better work culture.

How to Change

We can learn a great deal from others about our shortcomings or areas of deficiency – that is, if we care to ask and listen.

Honest Appraisal of Business Values

One of the areas companies have more proactively embraced in the wake of #MeToo is opening up the conduct and reputation of their leadership to more frequent and thorough scrutiny.

The culture of any organization is generally a function of its history and its present. Every leader inherits the baggage of the predecessor but has an opportunity to steer the company toward a different path. So, to begin, those responsible for running the business should honestly appraise the business values present in the current leadership culture.

Whether they take cultural inventory on their own or bring in an organizational consultant for perspective, companies also should consider each of the following questions:

Is the workplace an open environment that fosters strong and healthy lines of communication?
Are issue reporting routes effective and honored?
Is responsibility allocated appropriately according to role, without evidence of unnecessary power dynamics?
Is gratitude evident toward employees who contribute in ways that exhibit inclusion and camaraderie? Or, is the organization more geared toward supporting those in power without regard to effects on the lower-level workers?
 Are turnover, negativity and a mindset of showing up just to get a paycheck the norm or the exception? 
Determining Aspirational Values

The #MeToo movement demands we move together toward more neutral workplaces that value the individual in relation to the company as a whole. This is not a new concept. Ostensibly, we work together to achieve the greater good. But many people in this country believe that business has fallen short of this goal: that the insides of companies are not ideal, that pockets of power in work settings dehumanize female employees and cause them unneeded negative emotional and social challenges that male counterparts never experience.

We have a choice to make. Do leaders continue down the same road? Or, do we innovate in a manner not considered before? Do we move toward workplaces with humility embodied in all organizational leaders, in all employees?

Aspirational values give business an opportunity to improve and align practices toward a better tomorrow – a future where similarly situated workers are, in fact, treated equally and where the work environment is appropriate for all. Once these ideals are identified, the company must consider how the different types of workers would embody them through action and conduct. This is where the real work begins.

Removing Obstacles to Progress

With knowledge of organizational deficiencies and aspirational values in hand, where can a business start to change in a meaningful way?

To the extent a company can keep it simple, try to do so. Go back to the basics we learned so long ago for the sandbox: share, play fair, be nice and don’t throw the sand, especially on windy days.

That said, where to begin? One of the basics is to get everyone into the same sandbox. Departments or business areas that act as islands disconnect workers, kill collaboration and foster unmanageability for any organization. We function better when we each know our role and don’t make it more than it is.

Another key area for any business is to hold everyone to the same standards when it comes to relationships. That said, our businesses are not laboratory settings for ideal relationships; not even close. The #MeToo movement requires us to move from where we are to a place that progresses to honoring and respecting each individual. Doing so, even slightly, may well bring benefits. Time will tell.

Considering New Types of Action       

A larger number of workplaces recognize that an addition to the managerial support structure can enhance efforts to cultivate a more positive work environment. Some call this new position a chief happiness officer, and it focuses on relationship-building and helping employees achieve their highest potential. Companies who have created these types of positions have seen increased production and innovation.

Final Thoughts

The #MeToo aftermath is allowing our leaders to have a more genuine discussion of the negative impacts that institutional pay inequity and/or harassing workplace environments have on individual workers and the organization’s effectiveness. By considering more holistic approaches to these issues, businesses are better-positioned to allow and support workers to take greater responsibility in their work environments and cultures.

Whether the #MeToo movement actually results in a fuller elimination of problematic workplaces remains to be seen. At a minimum, it has intensified the conversation and given us all another opportunity to get it right.

Sarah Moore is a partner in the Cleveland, Ohio, office of Fisher Phillips, one of the largest U.S. law firms representing management exclusively in the areas of labor, employment, civil rights, employee benefits and immigration law. She handles labor contract negotiation and administration and has taught labor law and collective bargaining courses at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and Cleveland State University’s Nance College of Business Administration.

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