With numerous careers in the political and entertainment worlds already claimed by sexual harassment accusations that are being surfaced and substantiated through the online #MeToo movement, I felt inclined to ask some international experts about the broader implications of #MeToo for the corporate world.
The participating experts are:
Enrique Aznar, culture expert and former C-level compliance chief, NL/Spain
Ashli Davis, leadership communication expert and faculty member at Kennesaw State University, US
Leandro Herrero, organizational change expert, Chalfont Project, UK
Sharon Hunter, organizational communication expert, Montreal, Canada
Quentin Langley, branding expert, faculty member at New Jersey City University, US
Caroline Sapriel, crisis communication expert, CS&A, Belgium
As a communicator who is particularly focused on the communication role of employees and “internal” stakeholders, the #MeToo movement has struck me as significant not only for opening the gates for sexual assault and harassment victims to publicly and directly confront their attackers, but for having the potential to drive more open discussion of other issues inside as well outside corporate walls.
For the most part, the panel members were skeptical about whether #MeToo as a viral communication phenomenon would bleed into the corporate reputational or internal communication spheres.
Quentin Langley, who authored Brandjack, a book about how hostile stakeholders can trash and redefine brand reputations, doesn’t see much direct impact. “Think of United Airlines here. After the massive United Breaks Guitars controversy, which was linked to a $180 million fall in the share price, you would think United would develop a learning strategy, but if you look at the more recent assault on a passenger being bumped, clearly they haven’t. It would be nice to think this could make them more responsive, but I sense this isn’t happening.”
Sharon Hunter, who is currently Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), has also worked with sexual assault support services, and notes that the scrutiny attached to the act of accusation-making would deter all but the most serious accusations “I think it’s difficult for someone to make a very public accusation, especially while they are still working in the organization where the event took place. I think most will stick to an internal complaint process as a first step.”
“In general, levels of all kinds of reported misconduct are lower than levels of observed misconduct,” says Enrique Aznar. Sharon notes, according to Statistics Canada, an estimated five percent of sexual assaults are actually reported, and only one in five reported cases go to court.
Some opportunity for change
Ashli Davis said, “leaders should be scared if their behavior has been questionable towards women, or just in general.” None of the panelists thought that #MeToo in and of itself would directly make employees more willing to out misbehavior by companies, leaders or other employees, several of the panelists were able to see that #MeToo can be used as an example to shift corporate behavior.
“It can and it will,” says Leandro. “Only blind leaders could not see that the rules are not written anymore.” Sharon adds “I would hope so. This holds true for all issues relating to reputation, especially employer brand. Internal culture is no longer something existing only behind closed doors.”
Ashli cites a recent example, “Look at Uber and the blowup this year with sexual harassment at the highest level within the organization. Revenue dropped significantly in one day and still hasn’t recovered, all because of a blog post by Susan Fowler, who wasn’t going to tolerate ‘formal’ processes which failed to protect her from harassment, discrimination and retaliation in the first place.” Caroline adds: “The success of #MeToo will allow other outrage movements to spring up bypassing the normal disciplinary and compliance process. Companies are getting used to having less control, and younger leaders will likely push further for that.”
Existing formalities – and an opportunity for improvement.
The expectations of some panelists are tempered by enduring restraints. Quentin adds: “I would hope this would accelerate things, but legal jurisdictions vary. The EU, for instance, requires accusations to be made through formal channels with investigations and proof required to criminal standards simply for ending a contract for employment.”
This is no bad thing, says Enrique. “For me, #MeToo is a wakeup call to get organizations to recognize that they are constantly and consistently exposed. They would do well if they made a habit of taking internal reporting seriously and investigate it and address it properly before it goes public. In turn, getting matters aired publicly does drive internal change. Companies shouldn’t hide behind formal channels, or make them an obstacle or barrier. Making the official system effective and responsive, with victims protected from retaliation and the accused from being exposed without proof, for me, is the best way to surface misconduct while ensuring due process is respected.”
From a communication perspective
While I don’t see #MeToo producing, in and of itself, what Leandro would call a “Corporate Spring,” I see it as a milestone, a landmark, that will be a reference point for the enduring power of social contagion in making things happen on a large scale. The term “Going Viral” may have lost its power, But by recalling the toppling of dozens of media and political figures, “Remember #MeToo” will ultimately become a powerful metaphor that will spark more social contagion, with potentially profound implications for organizations and communicators.
Mike Klein is a Netherlands-based internal communicator and writer, whose blog and practice, Changing The Terms, focuses on internal communication strategy. Mike is also the Regional Vice Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Europe - Middle East - North Africa.