I spent a year researching workplaces in the post-#MeToo era. Here’s what I learned

We still have work to do, ladies.
We still have work to do, ladies.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Employees in the United States are demanding more agency over their work lives, but it’s difficult to pinpoint how exactly things are changing.

This is one of the things that inspired me to spend a year researching workplaces in the post-#MeToo era.

More awareness about gender parity has highlighted other shifts in our work culture needs and awareness. A substantial online market indicates that as a workforce, we are interested in more than job staples like salaries and health benefits; people are seeking out and sharing information about company cultures.

We see this in workplace review platform Glassdoor, which reports 67 million unique users each month, and which values ratings around company leadership style. Anonymous workplace community Blind publishes insights from employees at more than 70,000 companies, enabling employees to share information like details about workplace disputes and salary bands.

The career coaching space is now a more-than-$1 billion industry, and self-employment numbers are rising. Union membership remains at just 6.4% among private sector workers. But movements like #GoogleWalkOut, which protested sexual harassment at the big tech firm, are springing up across cities and sectors to protest unethical company conduct.

On the heels of several employment experiences that made me wish I had more agency and negotiating power at work, I co-founded Simone, an organization that helps people build better work lives through connections to lawyers, counselors, and other professionals who provide objective employment counsel and advice.

I spoke with hundreds of people employed in at-will, salaried positions—people who experienced employment situations that ranged from sexual harassment to salary and severance negotiations in entry-level and executive positions.

I had conversations with product managers who returned from maternity leave to environments of exclusion; minority orchestra musicians who were inexplicably denied tenure by a homogenous group of colleagues; marketing executives who were fired after raising concerns about the company’s gender dynamics; finance teams who banded together to call out the abusive tactics of a team lead; and medical professionals who were pushed out after raising ethical concerns about business practices.

Here are some of the lessons I learned in my year of research.

The problem doesn’t stop with speaking up

Most #MeToo conversations—and resources—have focused on the critical initial action of calling out or firing a bad actor. But as I learned from my conversations, it can’t stop there.

People need options to seek financial or emotional justice for themselves, regardless of what happens to the person who mistreated them. One media executive reached out after a suspicious and sudden demotion, in an environment where she was the only woman executive, and where she experienced coded language about her body and personal life. For her, moving forward meant working with a trusted employment attorney to try and recoup lost wages as a result of the demotion.

People also want an empathetic, trustworthy community who can listen to what happened, and potentially help inform decisions or connect them to future stable work environments.

A female engineer I spoke to was considering speaking publicly about the monoculture at her well-known company. She eventually decided against speaking out, after connecting with a whistleblower attorney and speaking with others who could empathize with her experience.

In these and other cases, conversations and resources like these were critical to providing women agency to make the decisions that were right for them.

In short: sweeping movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp gave people the power to speak up and fight back. But now those same people need the proper resources to move forward. 

Emotional support is the key

Sexual harassment and discrimination of any kind are often fraught, traumatic, confusing, and nuanced. Companies need to go beyond addressing the problem as the person who instigates or engages in harmful behavior.

We need a recovery plan for survivors, especially in light of research that shows many people who have come forward to tell #MeToo stories are still bearing significant emotional and professional scars and burdens. A plan for the person afflicted must include emotional support, a path to new work and opportunities, and a way to understand, identify, and find healthy work cultures in the future.

There are a lot of ways managers and companies can help address this. An effective holistic solution could take the form of an independent non-profit assigning a social worker to an employment case; corporate policies that enable remote work options for harassed employees; or perhaps moderated online communities to provide safe connections to networking opportunities and healthier employment situations.

Lawsuits aren’t always the best way to fight a harmful work situation

People who pursue public lawsuits to recalibrate unjust power imbalances at work are truly courageous. But people also have different ways of coping with mistreatment and devaluation at work, and this may translate into different needs. With the social momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we risk viewing lawsuits as the best default course of action. But incredible financial stability, resources and emotional fortitude are necessary to pursue a lawsuit, and not everyone has access to those things.

People should stack-rank how important different variables are as they decide whether to pursue a more litigious path. From what I’ve learned in my many conversations about people’s experiences, for instance, short-term financial well-being might not always pair neatly with seeking justice against a former employer.

Lawyers—while hopefully uniquely skilled in their profession—are not trained to offer a holistic support system, which people who have been affected by discrimination or harassment often need. On top of this, a lawsuit can seriously limit the ability of a plaintiff to move on to another position in a healthy and productive way, especially when the process is expensive and drags on.

“Amicable separation” seems to work best—for everyone

Amicable separation with minimal legal interference not only prevents headaches for employers, but is the best option for employees in most cases I have seen. It lessens the chances of incurring more harm from the brutal treatment and exposure a lawsuit can lead to, and helps survivors of workplace abuse achieve what most report they desire most of all: to get out.

Should someone want to pursue legal action, there are different tiers they should pursue before a lawsuit, including sending demand letters or enlisting a lawyer to help with ghostwriting negotiation.

Legal advice aside, we still need better workplace culture standards that mandate employers treat employees humanely and with decency. I’ve learned of too many cases where employers resorted to gaslighting someone into thinking they were terrible workers to push them to leave on their own. Employment lawyers have reiterated that this is a tactic employers use: Instead of firing employees, employers can push people into such a miserable mental space that they resign.

When confronting conflict, change, or even just a mismatch, companies should focus on introducing transparent severance or transition policies, bringing in a third party to avoid conflict of interest to mediate, or building paths for people to join new teams at the same company.

We need better ways to vet our future work environments

Beyond securing a financially stable future, people looking for change from a hostile work environment generally wish to move into a new healthy job reinvigorated and confident. This means we need better tools to carry out due diligence on future managers, company cultures, as well as company products or offerings.

Compatibility with a manager’s personality or company culture are critical components to success in a role, and are just as necessary as product viability and executive management competence when it comes to predicting the success of the ship you’re about to jump aboard.

As I mentioned, we have more and more services like Glassdoor and Blind, but we need more. These employer vetting tools could take the form of closed message boards for women or underrepresented communities, like the anonymous chat service Elpha; workplace advice hotlines like the sexual harassment hotline Emma Watson and Time’s Up rolled out; or simply reaching out to former or current employees of a company on LinkedIn to ask for a fuller picture of a team culture.

Career growth doesn’t usually come from inside your company

In the context of #MeToo, people facing workplace problems often feel completely alone within their companies. Their manager or colleagues are naturally conflicted and biased. So, finding sponsors outside the confines of an organization—ideally, someone who is there for a person’s entire career journey—helps connect people to future paid opportunities.

In a broader sense, employer-sponsored health and wellness benefits for employees are great, but performance management and coaching internally is only useful in the context of someone’s team or direct hiring circumstance, not in the context of their long-term, independent goals. Employees can and should benchmark their salaries, titles, and equity packages to the outside market to give them more negotiating ammunition. And while internal mentors are important in the confines of advancing in organization, external sponsors and mentors are equally critical. For me personally, lifelong sponsors have been by my side through thick and thin to support my trajectory independently of my company OKRs.

When it comes to financial growth, personal networks are just as important as professional ones

In generations past, it was fairly normal to stay at one company for decades, with the understanding that loyalty and contributions would lead to promotions and financial reward. Today, millennial employees tend to stay at companies for just a few years at most. According to Gallup, six in 10 millennials are open to new job opportunities, signaling that loyalty to just one company is not as common anymore.

Building knowledge independent of any company, and making connections outside that company, is becoming increasingly important, especially as more of the workforce turn to freelance and self-employment (by some estimates, up to 50% of the workforce will be freelancing by 2020). Additionally, sharing best practices with people in similar career paths outside of your company helps create an important community separate from coworker relationships, which may be colored with biases or internal workplace politics.

If we really wish to create more parity in the workplace, it will take a hefty and complex combination of more worker agency and more empathetic corporate human resources policies. For employees, learning more about negotiation, leverage, and creating a professional moat of external relationships through community-building is essential. For employers, seriously tackling the deeply entrenched issues that escalated the #MeToo movement means much more than slapping a harasser on the wrist or applying to “best company to work for” awards. We need to invest in and celebrate employee agency and empowerment well beyond that.

If we want to enable a more equitable working world, we need to commit to the deeper work.