#MeToo brings new expectations

#MeToo brings new expectations

Have you examined how the #MeToo movement changes the way sexual misconduct claims are handled at your organization, in your firm, or for those you advise?

If you haven’t, well, #TimesUp.

These two social media hashtags made viral after the 2017 downfall of top Hollywood movie executive led to a national reckoning over sexual misconduct in the workplace. October marks two years since the #MeToo movement started, and the movement’s demands for the protection of women have had implications in all aspects of our communities, businesses, and entertainment industries.

Employees in many places are also pushing for change. Thousands of Google employees staged a walkout last year to protest the treatment of women and the handling of sexual harassment claims after The New York Times reported a top executive left the technology giant with a $90 million severance package following a credible sexual misconduct claim.

Several states and localities passed laws in the last two years affecting how sexual misconduct complaints are received and handled.

For example, New York expanded protections against sexual harassment to nonemployees such as contractors, vendors, consultants, and other service providers; prohibited nondisclosure agreements related to sexual harassment unless the victim expresses a preference for such an agreement; and created a model policy for employers to adopt. California prohibited provisions in settlement agreements that prevent disclosure of certain claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual discrimination.

The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct also has specific guidelines related to harassment and discrimination, which are discreditable to the profession, although they have not changed in recent years. CPA firms should reevaluate their statutory obligations by going over changes at the state and local levels with human resources or employment law experts to ensure that their practices are up to date. This is great advice for all organizations!

Setting the tone at the top is the best way to get the message through to potential perpetrators that harassment isn’t tolerated. Leaders need to create policies prohibiting sexual harassment, make certain those policies are widely understood by employees, and ensure zero-tolerance policies are adhered to at all levels. In word and in action, organizational leaders need to support those policies and set an example by upholding them.

That means senior management, from the CEO on down, should actively engage in any training or employee working groups developing policies.

It also means calling out questionable behavior that happens in front of an executive or is heard about by a top partner. If a senior manager makes a joke about a female colleague’s appearance (or even worse), having an executive speak up sends a clear message that a line was crossed.

Staying silent leaves the impression that the behavior is OK.

Training on sexual harassment in U.S. workplaces over the past 30 years has largely missed the mark, resulting in just a quarter of suspected sexual misconduct incidents being reported to employers, according to a 2016 task force report on sexual harassment issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Any type of sexual harassment training or policies should reinforce the clear message of zero tolerance for sexual harassment, with actions that back that up. Training should be interactive, tailored to individual workplaces, and emphasize cultivating working environments built on civility and respect.

Also needed are opportunities for staff to ask what is and isn’t unwelcome behavior. This can both provide clarity for staff members and open a dialogue for discussing these issues in the workplace.

In an example of an individually tailored workplace policy, if a firm has staff members who travel with colleagues to clients’ businesses for audits, training should cover these scenarios. Training should include clear guidance on how to respond under each scenario to inappropriate behaviors that occur out of the office setting. Training should also describe the mechanisms that are in place if a client engages in harassing behavior, whether it was a firsthand experience or observed.

Bachman suggests organizations evaluate their current reporting structure and examine whether employees are given clear guidance on how to raise concerns and what happens once an investigation starts.

Staff members need to be reassured that there won’t be repercussions for those who do raise concerns, whether the report is made by a victim or someone who has witnessed questionable behavior.

Regardless of the structure of the reporting process, employers need to make sure they take complaints and reports of misconduct seriously.

Past incidents may also need to be examined with 2019 eyes. Some firms review incidents of sexual misconduct from a decade or more ago and decide that they no longer want someone on their payroll with a history of harassing behavior, even if it was tepidly dealt with years ago.

Heightened awareness of the implications of sexual harassment has affected the due-diligence process in mergers and acquisitions.

Some companies are even writing clauses into purchase agreements regarding accusations of sexual harassment.

New owners don’t want to keep people who are liabilities and are making clear that those with histories of sexual misconduct need to be let go before any acquisition goes through.

Since #MeToo exploded into the public sphere, male professionals have voiced concerns about having work-related dinners with female subordinates or one-on-one meetings behind closed office doors with women in their firm.

Male managers who take that approach could face gender discrimination challenges for treating women in the business substantially different from their male colleagues. Like sexual harassment, sexual discrimination is illegal and can open a company up to a lawsuit, and it can send a message to talented staff that women aren’t supported.

It’s also important to realize that these issues of equity aren’t limited to the treatment of women. Men and those who may identify with traditionally marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ communities also have been affected. lit is time to return to the themes of civility and respect. If meetings and meals are kept within the widely accepted lines of professional work settings, then there won’t be a problem.

courtesy of the Journal of Accountancy