Editor's note: The following is a contributed piece by Ingrid Fredeen, vice president of online learning content at NAVEX Global.
"Don't #MeToo me."
A man I do business with recently said that to me as he introduced a perfectly mundane observation about the office temperature. He remarked that he was surprised to run into a woman who actually doesn't mind a cold room — but was fearful that I may consider it sexual harassment. A thoughtless stereotype, sure. But The Wall Street Journal called the issue the most divisive workplace dispute. Tied to a ubiquitous observation about women's comfort, it hardly stands equal to the accusations against Harvey Weinstein or the dozens of other powerful men accused of heinous conduct against women.
His comment left me wondering about the fundamental brokeness within our organization: this otherwise nice man seemed to fear that the most trivial comment would be used to attack him, but he also misunderstand how far his comment fell from the pervasive abuse and harassment represented by the #MeToo movement.
While giving voice to women, #MeToo also seems to have left some men afraid that women are coming to work every day looking to get them in a room and accuse them of something. It seems that some men, in fact, are powerless victims of an irrational and unfair social movement that is rapidly being codified across organizations and industries. Part of the recent emphasis on sexual harassment has scared these men that no mistake is too small to warrant harsh punishment.
And this fear, although irrational, needs to be recognized by employers and addressed so that men better understand the movement and understand that they, too, truly benefit from it. So that they will have greater trust in their employers tasked with handling complaints about behavior. Only then will men feel comfortable about fully engaging in the effort to end harassment.
As your organization works to address real and persistent sexual harassment concerns (the driving issue behind #MeToo), employers must also address the flip side of this challenge. What can employers do?
Recognize that fear is a by-product of this movement for some of their employees. They cannot ignore this — employers must find ways to let employees express their concern in a productive way.
Address the fear head-on: call it out, and help employees understand how your organization deals with complaints. Build trust in your process and the people who assess complaints.
Train your employees properly. Don't teach them about the law, but focus on helping them navigate the gray areas. Enlighten them of their own behavior, and make sure they know how to apologize for mistakes, how to address innocent errors and, most importantly, how to hold each other accountable without shame.
To create the effective, fair workplaces we need and expect, we must address the inappropriate, harmful and rampant sexual harassment and misconduct that #MeToo stories have illuminated. But we need to talk about the fear factor created by the movement as well.
When men say something like "it's too risky for me to mentor a woman" or they preface a comment with "don't #MeToo me," they display an uncertainty about what is and isn't acceptable in the post-#MeToo workplace. We see this uncertainty shine through because companies haven't done enough high-quality training. In some cases, employees have received no training at all. Simply checking the box is the wrong strategy in an environment like the one we operate in today.
The vast majority of organizations have adequate policies — although even the best need regular review. But if those policies have been communicated to employees poorly and without training, they won't make any difference.
Company leaders — sometimes executives who aren't fully acquainted with the policies themselves — are leaving their workers confused and scared by either neglecting training entirely or failing to use training that is designed to help employees navigate today's workplace challenges.