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June 25, 2018
Commentary

From #MeToo to #MaineCanDo: Eradicating workplace harassment

Betsy Peters

While you may not always recognize it, sexual harassment is probably affecting someone where you work, shop, play or eat. Research shows that more than one in five Americans have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Three in 10 have personally witnessed it happening to a coworker.

It has been almost 10 years since Tarana Burke began the MeToo movement to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society and the workplace. And, it has been about nine months since the hashtag #MeToo entered our everyday vernacular. Now, accusations featuring actors, coaches, priests, philanthropists, investors and business people make the daily news. We are not immune to it, even here in Maine.

Society has raised the bar with regard to what it will tolerate in the workplace in 2018. It is a strategic imperative for business leaders to respond to these changes, and the risk of not acting is high. An open letter on social media accusing an employee of sexual harassment can cause both immediate and long-term financial and reputational damage to your business. Relegating the issue of sexual harassment as a mere matter of "HR compliance" is putting your company's future at risk.

It is critical that you take the time to examine what you can do to prevent it.

A safe and equitable workplace

For the most part, the expectations of your employees, customers and investors are not based on winning a lawsuit or prevailing in front of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They are based on the simple requirement that the workplace be a safe and equitable environment. Period.

The fundamental question for Maine business leaders is this: How can we create model workplaces and business cultures that ensure productive, competitive, equitable and respectful environments in which employees thrive in, customers admire and shareholders benefit?

This question led to the founding of #MaineCanDo earlier this year. A group of business and nonprofit leaders representing a wide range of experiences and networks got together, to investigate how, together, we might all do better. Ultimately, the goal was to put what we learned in service to other leaders throughout the state.

As we learned more, it became clear that sexual harassment breeds faster in cultures that also exhibit unhealthy power dynamics and poor governance. Potential red flags would be tacit approval of high-status employees, excess latitude granted to high-value employees and alcohol consumption as part of the workplace culture.

Based on insights we gained from our research and the input we received from top labor attorneys, victim service providers and others who joined our coalition, we created MaineCanDo.org. The website provides practical tools and resources to help Maine business owners put important changes into action in order to prevent sexual harassment.

The site contains checklists, model policies and connections to subject matter experts. The intent is to help each of us (individuals, employers, and investors) to become more intentional about the governing principles and work practices that shape the places where we invest our time, talent and money.

All eyes are on leadership

At MaineCanDo.org, we've created a pledge to help you kickstart the process of translating your power and goodwill into action. More than 60 business leaders in Maine have already signed on and are using the pledge (along with other tools at the site) in unique ways to signify their commitment to just this kind of growth and evolution. Some of the investors are doubling down on their commitment by using questions from our checklists to expand their due diligence. Committed business leaders are modifying the hashtag to reinforce intent in internal communications, such as #GWICanDo.

Not only is getting this right the right thing to do, your talent pipeline, brand reputation and economic value just may depend on it.

Betsy Peters is chief strategist at 230Trees, board chair at CourseStorm and primary instigator at MaineCanDo.

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