This blog is a part of the Organizational Communication Research Center.
#MeToo. In a 24-hour period beginning on October 15, 2017, more than 17,000 victims of sexual assault, harassment and their supporters tweeted the hashtag #MeToo in a show of solidarity against these crimes and their aggressors, according to the Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America (PEORIA) Project, a comprehensive Twitter analysis from social intelligence company, Crimson Hexagon and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (Ohlheiser, 2018). From actress Alyssa Milano’s single Twitter post urging assault and harassment victims to post the words of activist Tarana Burke, “Me Too” (Brockes, 2018) to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” (Schmidt, 2017, para. 3), came a global movement that remains among Twitter’s most prevalent conversations, having been tweeted more than 7 million times in less than 90 days (Cohen, 2018).
As the tweets, retweets, likes, and related hashtags rolled in, #YesAllWomen, #YouOkSis, #HerToo, to name a few, I started thinking critically about the #MeToo movement, its people, its prevalence, and from a public relations perspective, how to best apply Milano’s advice. The majority of #MeToo posts referred to sexual harassment events at work (Cohen, 2018). And although Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has prohibited workplace sexual harassment for more than 50 years in the United States (Civil Rights Act, 1964), sexual harassment and the silence around it continues.
A 2017 study in particular, found that victims of workplace sexual harassment who did not report occurrences when they took place, experienced negative psychological, emotional, and financial outcomes up to a decade after the event(s) (McLaughlin, Uggen & Blackstone, 2017). Results from a similar study suggest workplace sexual harassment impacts organizations too, as the prevalence of sexual harassment may reduce work outcomes such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Chan, Chow, Lam & Cheung, 2008). While previous research demonstrates sexual harassment in the workplace impacts employees and organizational outcomes, there is little research on how an organization establishes and communicates its stance on harassment to employees and, how employees perceive that communication. How does an employee know where to go, who to talk to, and what will happen in the event he or she needs to report sexual harassment at work? Is there trust in the reporting system? Will everyone be treated fairly and equally?
I addressed this research gap in a co-authored study examining the influence of employee-organization relationships, organizational culture, and transparent communication on employee attitudes toward organizational sexual harassment reporting system. Specifically, the study evaluated an organization’s formal communication events as a meaning-making process, where employees interpret and reconstruct messaging forming their understanding of the organization’s stance toward sexual harassment and their affective stance toward the organization’s sexual harassment reporting system. In-depth interviews with 21 participants (15 female, 6 male) employed in 18 United States organizations across industry sectors, representing organizational hierarchies including individual contributors (N=15), supervisors (N=4), and executives (N=2) revealed how strategic internal communication may impact attitudes toward sexual harassment reporting systems in effort to reduce ongoing occurrences of workplace sexual harassment.
Ultimately, employees’ attitudes toward an organization’s reporting system stem collectively from the relationships, culture and conversations an organization has. From these communications, employees interpret formal and informal messages to gauge the organization’s stance on sexual harassment. In response to an organization’s stance, employees form a corresponding attitude toward the organization’s sexual harassment reporting system. Written sexual harassment policies, procedures, and training represent formal means employees may use to interpret an organization’s stance on sexual harassment. Employees may take a broader, and more personal look at the organization to grasp the informal component of an organization’s sexual harassment stance, including communication, behavior, reputation, and culture. Employees are also likely to factor in issues important to them, and the way the organization addresses those issues to establish how seriously they believe the organization takes sexual harassment and their formal policies.
Overall results suggest employees’ experience of positive employee-organization relationships relates to positive attitudes toward the organization’s sexual harassment reporting system. Respondents cited confidence, trust, and satisfaction in leadership, human resources, the organization, and the reporting process as the most significant factors in establishing their attitudes. Most notably relational trust combined with transparent communication strategies created an atmosphere where employees felt confident in the organization’s intolerance of harassment. Working in such an environment, one employee stated, “I’ve not had to report sexual harassment, but if I needed to, I wouldn’t hesitate to go to my manager, and to HR, no one has any tolerance for that sort of thing, so I don’t think anyone would even try it after their first round of training and week of work anyway.”
Transparent communication in the form of detailed, consistent messaging coming from multiple sources throughout the organization was critical to employees’ positive attitude toward sexual harassment reporting systems. Respondents reluctant to utilize sexual harassment reporting systems however shared concern regarding a lack of knowledge on next steps following a sexual harassment complaint given the severity of its implications. Cultures characterized by supportiveness, stability, and social responsibility were also discussed as having influenced employees’ reporting feelings. On organizational policies, one participant shared, “…I know we have them, and I know anything we’re not ok with is something we can take to leaders, no matter what.”
Because employees informally interpret a significant component of an organizations’ stance toward sexual harassment, and that stance guides employees’ attitudes toward sexual harassment reporting, the importance of strategic internal relationships and communication is critical. Overall, organizations who seek and incorporate employee input in their strategic communication, and who not only formally, but informally demonstrate intolerance of sexual harassment in its relationships, culture, and communication may help improve employees’ attitudes toward the organization’s sexual harassment reporting system, which may also contribute to reducing occurrences of workplace sexual harassment.
Our study findings suggest that organizations should (1) always take sexual harassment discussions, questions, comments and concerns seriously, (2) provide detailed sexual harassment training, including step-by-step reporting processes and events throughout all phases of a sexual harassment investigation, on an annual basis, and (3) consistently express genuine concern for employees’ well-being and demonstrate the organization’s commitment to maintaining a transparent communication system and a positive culture through connecting with employees, treating all employees equally, regardless of status, organizational hierarchy, or any other factor.
Katy Robinson is a Ph.D. student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on Linkedin @linkedin.com/in/katy-robinson.
Brockes, E. (2018, January 15). Me Too founder Tarana Burke: ‘You have to use your privilege to serve other people’. In www.theguardian.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/15/me-too-founder-tarana-burke-women-sexual-assault
Chan, D. K., Chow, S. Y., Lam, C. B., & Cheung, S. F. (2008). Examining the job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 362-376. doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00451.x
Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964).
Cohen, M. D. (2018, January 31). The #MeToo Movement Findings from the PEORIA Project. In https://gspm.gwu.edu/public-echoes-rhetoric-america-peoria-project. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://gspm.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2286/f/downloads/2018%20RD18%20MeToo%20Presentation.pdf
McLaughlin, H., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2017). The economic and career effects of sexual harassment on working women. Gender & Society: Official Publication of Sociologists for Women in Society, 31(3), 333-358. doi:10.1177/0891243217704631
Ohlheiser, A. (2018, January 22). How #MeToo really was different, according to data. In www.TheWashingtonPost.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/01/22/how-metoo-really-was-different-according-to-data/?utm_term=.157b684e14dc
Schmidt, S. (2017, October 16). #MeToo: Harvey Weinstein case moves thousands to tell their stories of abuse, break silence. In www.TheWashingtonPost.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/10/16/me-too-alyssa-milano-urged-assault-victims-to-tweet-in-solidarity-the-response-was-massive/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.14d4890ad72f