The Social Media Fix for Sexual Harassment
Our culture has been trying to eliminate sexual harassment since the late 1980s — nearly 30 years ago. And while we’ve certainly moved the needle, people are still subjected to abusive, harassing workplaces all the time, without a practical way to fix the problem or change the culture … until now.
What we saw recently with Bill O’Reilly and Uber is the power of social media to quickly solve workplace problems. In both cases, people “organized” online through social media. The online organization is similar to what people did in the early 1900s in response to the unbridled employer power created by the industrial revolution. In the 1900s, people banded together to gain power through numbers and to use that power to keep management accountable and achieve change. Then, in the early 1990s, Congress passed numerous employment laws to protect employee rights and banding together seemed less critical.
Yet as the EEOC reported last summer, laws, regulations and training have barely diminished the amount of workplace harassment. Why? Because no one wants to file a complaint with HR or file a lawsuit just to curb the bad behavior of a manager. People generally don’t want to go to HR since they know HR’s paycheck comes from the employer and HR lacks the power to fire executives and change a culture. And filing a lawsuit is the “nuclear” option as it often invites a scathing critique of the victim as well as damage to the victim’s professional reputation.
The scandals around Bill O’Reilly and Uber have shown people there’s an easier, quicker way to bring about cultural change. They can mobilize online to bring a public conscience to the problem and lobby consumers to exert economic pressure on the employer. Employees can change the workplace from the bottom up in days rather than waiting years for a legal remedy that damages the victim in the process.
Pretty soon, social media is going to change how employers manage HR and compliance risk. There are already apps that allow employees to remain anonymous and share information about their workplace. It’s only a matter of time until sharing information evolves into organized online campaigns against employers. Isolated claims and litigation are about to become lightweight. The most dangerous and immediate risk will be reputational harm and as Bill O’Reilly and Uber have shown us — that risk has quick, life-changing consequences. While experts have tried for years to end workplace harassment, I predict the power of the Internet is going to accelerate those efforts and effectuate disruptive change.