Time’s up for employers who think they can ignore #MeToo

15 March 2018

Author: Orlagh O'Neill
Practice Area: Employment Law


I expect when the actor Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo in October 2017 she could never have imagined that in less than 6 months it would be retweeted more than 2 million times across 85 countries. The call to speak up about sexual abuse and sexual harassment has clearly resonated with the public, leading many women to share their experiences publicly.

You might be forgiven for thinking this is a Hollywood phenomenon given the way it has been embraced by a myriad of film stars, both male and female, as they clutch their Oscars. But while they are the ones making most of the headlines, the #MeToo movement provides lessons for all employers, regardless of their sector or industry.

The way in which the Old Vic Theatre in London managed the fallout from the allegations against Kevin Spacey stands out for me because, somewhat unusually for an employer in this difficult situation, the theatre published in full the conclusions to the external investigation. Although twenty people came forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Kevin Spacey, none of these had been raised formally using the Old Vic’s policies during the actor’s eleven year tenure as artistic director. When interviewed, other staff admitted they had observed some of the behaviours but claimed they were unclear about how to respond at the time or they felt the theatre would not take the complaints seriously.

The investigation concluded that some of the factors that may have contributed to people not speaking up were Spacey’s star power and lack of accountability, a fear that speaking out could result in them losing their job and a lack of clarity as to what constituted inappropriate behaviour. In this case, the formal channels that required staff to initiate a grievance procedure had acted as a barrier to some victims.

In setting a new way forward, the Old Vic theatre carried out a root and branch review of its anti-harassment policies and procedures. This has resulted in “Guardians” being appointed from the theatre’s board to champion best practice and to be a first point of contact for those who don’t want to reach out through formal channels. A revised set of cultural expectations has been developed by staff for staff which articulates in basic terms behaviours that are “ok and not ok”.

As Carson McDowell enters its second years as business partner / sponsor of the Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards, we know from clients that the best employers have realised they need to address the issue. That’s because they are not simply treating it as a watercooler conversation, they are testing whether their own procedures are fit for purpose.

The absence of any formal complaints of harassment in your organisation may be because you have well developed policies and well trained staff. However, you should consider that it may also be masking a workforce where employees are reluctant to speak up because they are afraid that they will not be believed or they fear their job will be under threat.

While the #MeToo campaign is perceived as a threat by some employers who fear it could be the forerunner to historic allegations being raised with employers, I think employers should see it as a unique opportunity to demonstrate their company’s core values and commitment to diversity by taking a fresh look at their approach to dealing with harassment.

Do your procedures act as an enabler or a barrier? Is your staff training on what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour really up to date? Do staff feel safe in calling out inappropriate behaviour?

Intervening to deal with harassment at work is difficult; it takes courage and requires employers to acknowledge that mistakes have been made in the past. That is not easy for any organisation, especially in the current corporate environment. But these are essential steps to ensuring that your company, free from any kind of harassment, will be a more productive and more successful place for everyone to work. Doing nothing is no longer an option.


The 2017 Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards take place in Titanic Belfast on 14th June 2018. For entry pack and awards information visit www.irishnews.com/wea