Compliance in the Age of #MeToo

Abigail Marshall

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

Last year the #MeToo movement swept across the country, sparking national attention and debate. Fast forward 11 months and we still grapple with breaking news which exposes the next unsuspecting top executive of workplace misconduct. Victims are finally breaking their silence, leading corporations to reassess corporate culture. In this modern age, compliance is not enough. Corporations might need to reconsider decades old written policies and training programs to ensure safety, success, and growth in the workplace.

Federal Laws Protect Discrimination

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination protected by  Section VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the federal law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace. In today’s climate, it is impossible to ignore the countless claims of sexual harassment and assault dominating every industry. In the corporate area, not only do these allegations impact those involved, they pose new questions for businesses. Corporations must take an introspective approach into their policies, procedures, and training protocol. Not only are they tasked with asking whether they are in compliance, but what steps are being taken to ensure training and policies create a positive culture to decrease the occurrence of these incidents.

What can be done to address sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment and assault have long been a part of workplace culture. Fortunately, there are steps that the government and corporations can take to enact change. As a starting point, the Officer of Inspector General’s (OIG) has seven pillars of an effective compliance program. Corporations have policies and procedures to prevent these issues but in the wake of the #MeToo movement, businesses would benefit by reassessing their programs. There must be clear, concise guidelines for what types of behaviors constitute sexual harassment. Procedures that address the allegations must also be transparent. To address corporate culture on a large scale, businesses must provide well-defined, thoughtful standards to ensure employee protection. As a result, in the case of a breach, victims will not be discouraged from sharing their stories. In addition to policies and procedures, education and training is critical. The OIG’s second pillar of an effective compliance program is education and training. In any corporation, new employees receive an employee handbook. These handbooks are usually packed with information, including corporate policies and procedures. Corporations should ask themselves whether this is the most effective means of communicating crucial information. Transparent and effective training programs are fundamental to a safe and ethical workplace.

Legislative Action as a Start

Effective compliance programs will get the ball rolling toward change. However, legislation is fundamental to guarantee employees are protected with the weight of the law. Several states have proposed new legislation that could impact everyone from small businesses all the way up to those on Capitol Hill. California recently passed several sexual harassment bills awaiting the Governor’s signature. One of the pieces of legislation, SB 143, would expand the scope of required sexual harassment training in companies with five or more employees. If SB 143 is signed into law by the Governor’s September 30th deadline, California businesses could be one step closer to an OIG-approved compliance program.

Moving Forward

Allegations and findings of harassment in the workplace should be of the greatest importance in all industries. Not only does the wrongdoer’s conduct impact the victim, it affects the bottom line of the corporation, industry, country, and nation as a whole. In this modern era, corporations should assess their own culture and take necessary steps to create a safe, compliant, and ethical environment for all employees.