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#MeToo at Work

Alexandra I. Zelin, Assistant Professor, Psychology, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

How we can prevent #MeToo in the workplace

Despite its seriousness, sexual harassment prevention training inspires entire (albeit, tongue-in-cheek) episodes in popular American television shows, including The Office and NCIS, and memorable skits in many other venues, including Saturday Night Live. With all of this attention, it is easy to believe that sexual harassment prevention training is no longer needed.

Unfortunately, the evidence is quite clear that sexual harassment in the workplace has not ended. Volumes of news articles, like these in Sports Illustrated and on the PBS website  are posted weekly regarding different workplace sexual harassment cases. Further, research evidence from a number of scholars only seems to highlight that these publicized cases represent a small subset of the actual amount of sexual harassment happening.

The goal of this brief is to describe how organizations can create workplace climates prohibiting sexual harassment. Specific steps include changing the frame of reference about victimization, defining sexual harassment, developing effective trainings, changing organizational climate, and evaluating organizational climate change.

Changing the Frame of Reference

First, move away from blaming the victim. Blaming someone for being harassed will only serve to (a) silence the victims, and (b) prevent necessary interventions. Organizations need to move away from questions such as, “what were you wearing that prompted him to say those things?” and defending the harasser. Instead, realize the person reporting the harassment is already traumatized enough by the event!

Defining Sexual Harassment

Although the official EEOC definition provides an umbrella description of sexual harassment, many of the reactions to the #MeToo movement have included statements along the lines of, “I didn’t know that was considered sexual harassment!” and “Well, I’ve always done that, and now you are telling me I can’t?” Organizations can benefit from providing concrete examples of the different forms sexual harassment can take (e.g., sexual comments about one’s clothing and body, sharing of inappropriate images, catcalling/whistling) to help employees understand what behaviors are unacceptable.

Such a list could never be comprehensive, as there are infinite examples of behavior that could constitute sexual harassment. However, providing clearer behavioral anchors and benchmarks to illustrate this phenomenon can open up discussion within the workplace and provide a more nuanced definition than solely sharing the EEOC definition.

Keep in mind that both women and men are affected by sexual harassment, and that victims of harassment overwhelmingly include minorities. We cannot prevent what we cannot identify, so defining sexual harassing behaviors is imperative to preventing them.

Developing (Effective) Trainings

Armed with a more detailed and behavior-based definition of sexual harassment, organizations can then develop more effective trainings for (a) recognizing/identifying and (b) addressing/preventing sexual harassment. Studies, including those by Anderson and Whiston (2005), and Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan (2004), have shown effective trainings for sexual harassment prevention need to last more than 1 hour, include more than a generic “do not behave badly at work message,” and incorporate an active bystander framework. Employees need to leave trainings with sufficient knowledge about sexual harassment to feel confident in how to intervene to prevent it from occurring. To be effective, training must be accompanied by a change in organizational climate. Incorporating bystander intervention training is one way to help change the climate!

Changing Organizational Climate Beyond the Training

In addition to defining and training to prevent sexual harassment, organizational leaders need to make it a priority to work with HR and other related people functions to develop and enforce policies and guidelines for prevention of and response to sexual harassment. Such work means changing the climate of the organization and engaging leaders to consistently broadcast and signal the message that sexual harassment is unacceptable. In addition to messaging, there is a need for broad organizational support for any individuals who come forward to report victimization and/or the witnessing of inappropriate behavior. 

Evaluating Change

The only way to determine if training and/or climate or culture shift is effective is to evaluate the effects. Organizations can concretely establish whether instances of sexual harassment have occurred using Fitzgerald and colleagues’ (1995) workplace version of their Sexual Experiences Questionnaire measuring employee’s experiences of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment (for a military version, see Fitzgerald, et al., 1999).

Having employees complete this measure over time can indicate whether the organization is actually making a shift away from a culture supporting sexual harassment. Additionally, it can help HR determine if there are subcultures in different sectors of an organization that may need more training and organizational change intervention than others. When distributing this survey, it is important to realize there is no mention of sexual harassment within the questions, and sexual harassment should not be mentioned in any communications about the distribution of the survey

Training alone will not prevent sexual harassment; an entire overhaul of organizational culture is needed. Organizations can begin the process by changing the frame of reference, defining sexual harassment, developing effective training, and evaluating the results.

For more information on how to create organizational climate that discourages sexual harassment, see “Sexual Harassment of Women.”

The author wishes to thank Lisa Moore and Christopher J. L. Cunningham for reviewing drafts of this brief.


Anderson, L. A., & Whiston, S. C. (2005). Sexual assault education programs: A meta-analytic examination of their effectiveness. Psychology of Women Quarterly29(4), 374-388.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology32(1), 61-79.

Fitzgerald, L. F., Gelfand, M. J., & Drasgow, F. (1995). Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology17(4), 425-445.

Fitzgerald, L. F., Magley, V. J., Drasgow, F., & Waldo, C. R. (1999). Measuring sexual harassment in the military: The sexual experiences questionnaire (SEQ—DoD). Military Psychology11(3), 243-263.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). Sexual harassment of women: Climate, culture, and consequences in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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