EDITORIAL: Firms must address abuse

The number of people posting “me too” as their status on social media accounts in the last several days—part of a campaign to highlight the number of women who have been victims of sexual harassment—has been startling, even to those who already believed the problem to be widespread.

Of course, it’s not clear whether every one of the thousands, if not millions, of women posting those two simple words to their Facebook and Twitter feeds are victims themselves or are standing in solidarity with other women (and men) who have suffered harassment.

But it is clear that many women do not feel protected at work. According to testimony from Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, one in four women has faced sexual harassment on the job. The problem, she says, is particularly difficult for women in low-wage positions, who “often have little bargaining power and can least afford to risk their livelihoods by reporting harassment.”

And it’s likely the problem is underreported.

That’s why it’s long past time that executives in every company across the country take the issue seriously. There should not be a CEO anywhere who isn’t reviewing his or her company’s policy on addressing complaints about harassment. Managers in all industries should be assessing the culture of their workplaces to determine whether employees feel comfortable doing their jobs.

It’s not good enough to assume that all is well, that a lack of complaints in the past means there is no problem now or won’t be one in the future. Sexual harassment is a problem that lurks in the dark, that is fed by the belief that the victim is not in a position to risk reporting the abuser—or that the abuser is too powerful for a report to matter.

Even those companies with strong protections for workers and solid systems in place for handling complaints should review them in light of the changing economy.

Today, as many as 40 percent of U.S. workers have non-traditional positions, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. They are independent contractors, temporary employees, part-time workers or are self-employed.

For these workers, there is no clear path for reporting harassment. They are not generally covered by a company’s human resources department. Some might deal with only the person who has hired them for a job. Others, like Uber drivers or delivery workers, might interact primarily with customers. But all are potential victims of harassment, with little recourse for reporting and ending abusive situations.

That’s why all companies need policies not only for harassment within their organizations but also for those people they deal with outside the comfort of the traditional employer-employee relationship.

We’re long past pretending that sexual harassment is an isolated problem. The question is not whether your firm will ever deal with it—it’s what you will do when it happens. Don’t mess it up.•

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