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What #MeToo will mean for your workplace

When Alyssa Milano tweeted the #MeToo hashtag in 2017, it unleashed a movement that launched a social revolution. With just two words, women demonstrated the prevalence of sexual harassment in almost every culture around the world.

In true Hollywood fashion, the #MeToo shockwave brought down the likes of Harry Weinstein and Matt Lauer, among others, who were once prominent and powerful industry royalty, and long considered to be untouchable. With more famous faces joining the list almost daily, it’s clear that a culture of silent acceptance will no longer be tolerated.

A permanent shift in our culture

While the demise of the big Hollywood names played out on center stage, the magnitude of sexual harassment in the everyday workplace is equally as shocking. The #MeToo movement is significantly and permanently changing workplace culture. It’s critical that organizations address the potential risk or the presence of any predatory behavior before it causes detrimental harm to both their employees and their business.

Take the proactive approach

The days of quietly settling a claim or sweeping it under the rug are gone, and any level of cultural acceptance is also in the past. Every employee, regardless of position, power, or influence, will be held accountable for their actions.

And, should the hint of a substantiated sexual harassment claim be filed, you can be certain that it won’t be met with secrecy. People will find out, and choosing to address it after the fact can be a costly mistake.

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Your hidden culture matters

Many companies view their employee training through a compliance or legal lens. While rules and guidelines are part of the program, the focus of your efforts needs to be on your company’s underlying, hidden culture — the one that exists as a result of your employees’ true beliefs and assumptions

The actual culture can be dramatically different than your organization’s stated culture – the ideal standards and behaviors that employees might demonstrate in the perfect world you’ve created through corporate policies, company values statement, and written rules.

Unfortunately, communicating your idea of acceptable behavior to your employees and expecting automatic compliance is unrealistic. True change is accomplished through an intentionally designed shift in culture that is stated and continually reinforced by top management.

We all know that cigarettes are dangerous to our health, yet people continue to smoke. We eat too much and exercise too little, even though we’re well versed in the consequences. Even when people know better, rules can easily be ignored.

Employees must understand that compliance with the organization’s rules is mandatory and that they apply to every employee—from entry level staff to the President and CEO– without exception.

If we look at the fall of Matt Lauer, we can see that NBC did everything right…on paper. Their Human Resources and Legal Departments are staffed with well-educated and experienced professionals. They have written rules and regulations and an extensive, formal training program.

As an organization, NBC effectively communicated what they expected in terms of acceptable behavior, and their employees knew the rules. Unfortunately, the underlying, actual culture had a different set of standards and beliefs. Employees clearly understood that people of power, importance, and position were above the rules and were free to do as they pleased, without the threat of consequences.

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How to change your corporate culture

Changing your corporate culture requires steadfast commitment. As Steve Paskoff explained in a recent post, leaders at all levels must be diligent in communicating the acceptable standards of treatment and conduct, and they should charge others with doing the same. As a personal, organizational commitment, they should invest the same amount of time and energy into transforming the culture as they do into any other critical business initiative.

Communication and its content are vital parts of shifting culture. Of course, policies and procedures, training, hotlines, and other standard methods are necessary. But, communication also includes the ways in which leaders conduct themselves, what they say and do in meetings, and how they naturally wrap the topic of appropriate behavior into everyday conversations. Any violations of rules or inappropriate behavior must be dealt with quickly and consistently across all levels of employees, regardless of position.

Changing the long-standing behavior that defines your culture doesn’t happen overnight. Your efforts must be continuous, enduring, and never-ending. As your behavior standards are reinforced and rewarded, they’ll gradually be woven into the workplace environment.

The bottom line

Whether you realize it or not, #MeToo has already begun to affect your workplace. What was once tolerated behavior will no longer be accepted or ignored. Even if the inappropriate behavior doesn’t qualify as illegal, it will certainly disrupt productivity, increase turnover, and cause you to risk uncertain damage to your company’s reputation. Time, communication, and a strong commitment will ultimately make the difference, and you have the power to lead the change.

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