Recent changes to New York State law regarding prevention of sexual harassment will require employers to revisit existing policies to comply with newly-mandated provisions, as summarized in our lead story from Takeaways, Spring 2018. But looking beyond the state law, one key lesson to be derived from the #MeToo movement is that workplace policies prohibiting harassment must also emphasize power disparities. The common thread in so many of the #MeToo-type incidents reported in the media is the use of, or perceived threat to use, power to objectify or demean someone. This power-based focus is not just limited to gender; it plays out in interactions between individuals of different races, national origin, religions, sexual orientation and other protected classes, and thus it should be emphasized in any policy prohibiting harassment, not just those pertaining to sexual harassment.
Power disparities also are not limited to supervisor-subordinate relationships. Consider a new hire being shown the ropes by an employee with five or ten years of experience. Those individuals may be peers on an organization chart, but there still is a power disparity that can cause the new hire to feel uncomfortable objecting to offensive behavior.
Other times, the behavior at issue may not fall into the category of actionable harassment based on a protected characteristic. Sometimes the behavior is just demeaning and abusive on an individual or group level.
Regardless of whether the behavior would give rise to a legal claim, the nature of such conduct can be corrosive in the work environment. It can undermine morale, loyalty and productivity. One step in addressing that is to add a clear, express statement in your anti-harassment policy that you will not tolerate the use of, or perceived threat to use, power to objectify or demean someone based on a protected class. Employers that want to go further than the law can build on that with an anti-bullying or workplace conduct policy emphasizing that actual or perceived misuse of power, including abusive behavior, is not acceptable and grounds for disciplinary action.
Employment policies need to comply with legal requirements, but employers have the option of holding employees to a higher standard of behavior. Updating policies to incorporate lessons learned from #MeToo is an important step in that process.