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#MeToo Complaints Swamp Human Resources Departments

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Fallen media mogul Harvey Weinstein's recent indictment on rape charges comes nearly eight months after allegations against him first surfaced. His case touched off a global #MeToo movement to speak out against workplace sexual harassment. And that, in turn, has created a deluge of complaints to human resources departments everywhere.

"It created this HR level of activity like nothing we've ever seen," says Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Taylor says he recently surveyed a room full of HR professionals and asked them how many were dealing with #MeToo-related complaints, investigations and training. The answer, he says, was 100 percent.

He says what began with Hollywood executives, news anchors and celebrity chefs is now taking hold in every industry, and at all levels of employment.

It is a long-overdue reckoning, he says, because for decades, HR departments fought hard to keep most claims under wraps.

"When you start talking to employees, they say, 'Oh, this was pervasive for 20 years.' It's because, until last year October, we just made those cases go away,"
primarily by settling cases out of court, or using nondisclosure agreements, Taylor says.

And today's complaints are not limited to sexual harassment. Taylor says #MeToo has touched off many other worker complaints.

"It starts off with women ... being harassed in the workplace," he says, but then evolves into demands to address pay equity, bullying, or retaliation.

Such is also the case at NPR, where the firing last year of two top news executives for sexual harassment led to the filing of other workplace grievances.

Sharon Sellers, an HR consultant based in Santee, S.C., says her caseload of sexual harassment investigations has tripled since late last year. Her cohorts in other parts of the country report a similar boom, she says.

"I've heard: 'It's a madhouse. It's crazy. I can't keep up with the work,' " Sellers says. "And, I am pretty well in that same position."

Since employers with fewer than 15 workers are not subject to federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, their employees might not have a legal right to sue in many cases. So, prior to the start of #MeToo, it was not a big issue on their radar. Now, Sellers says, companies of all sizes are taking the problem seriously.

It is a critical moment for leaders and their HR departments to take a stand, says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center. "This is their moment to finally get it right," she says.

Her group started operating the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund in January, and it has received more than 2,700 complaints to date. Graves says that outpouring of stories and complaints speaks to employers' long history of trying to keep claims private — or retaliating against workers.

"Part of that healing is going to be changing the institutions that covered for harassment and abuse for so long," Graves says. She says she worries, too, that many workers are not even able to bring claims — either because their employer is too small to be covered by federal law or because the workers are independent contractors or interns who are also not protected under the law.

However, she says, most organizations seem to recognize the need for fundamental change. "This is no longer an issue that is just sort of a side issue for only people who are HR professionals to be concerned with; this is an issue that boards and the senior leadership of companies should be deeply concerned about," Graves says.

But heightened concern by corporate executives doesn't always translate into greater support for workers who come forward.

Shelly Ruzicka, a spokesperson for Arise Chicago, a faith-based worker-advocacy group, says there are many workers, especially in low-wage industries, who say they still face resistance when they bring claims.

"In this moment, we actually sort of thought we would see more companies being willing to settle it ... and actually taking a step in the right direction," she says. "And instead, we have actually seen much more pushback and fighting their own workers."

Ruzicka says she has many workers eager to share their experiences, but because they filed complaints — either through their HR departments or with a state or federal agency — they were told not to discuss their stories while their cases are pending. "And so what we find is that women, even though they are brave enough to stand up and have somehow made it through the process this far, is they're once again feeling trapped and feeling silenced," she says.

Some, of course, wish to keep their stories confidential. But it's ironic, Ruzicka says, that those who want to speak out find themselves silenced again by the process.

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Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.