#MeToo brings new expectations: Rising awareness of sexual harassment has led to increased focus on preventing malfeasance and investigating claims in a zero-tolerance environment.

Author:Ovaska-Few, Sarah
 
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Have you examined how the #MeToo movement changes the way sexual misconduct claims are handled at your organization, in your firm, or for those you advise?

If you haven't, well, #TimesUp.

These two social media hashtags, made viral after the 2017 downfall of top Hollywood movie executive Harvey Weinstein, led to a national reckoning over sexual misconduct in the workplace. October marks two years since the #MeToo movement started, and the movement's demands for the protection of women have had implications in all aspects of our communities, businesses, and entertainment industries.

"The risk has changed radically from what it used to be," said Davia Temin, the president and CEO of the New York City-based Temin and Co., a consulting firm that advises companies, corporate boards, and individuals navigating sexual harassment claims. "This #MeToo movement has exacerbated risk, both financial and reputational, to the point that it doesn't bear that much resemblance to what existed before."

Employees in many places are also pushing for change. Thousands of Google employees staged a walkout last year to protest the treatment of women and the handling of sexual harassment claims after The New York Times reported a top executive left the technology giant with a $90 million severance package following a credible sexual misconduct claim.

While much of the #MeToo movement's focus has been on powerful men accused of lurid behavior, harassment can involve perpetrators of both sexes and cover a variety of scenarios, said Julie Moore, president of Employment Practices Group in Wellesley, Mass., and a lawyer specializing in workplace discrimination issues.

Temin, Moore, and others shared their thoughts on emerging best practices to discourage sexual misconduct and to investigate and respond to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace.

CHANGING REGULATIONS

Several states and localities passed laws in the last two years affecting how sexual misconduct complaints are received and handled, Moore said.

For example, New York expanded protections against sexual harassment to nonemployees such as contractors, vendors, consultants, and other service providers; prohibited nondisclosure agreements related to sexual harassment unless the victim expresses a preference for such an agreement; and created a model policy for employers to adopt. California prohibited provisions in settlement agreements that prevent disclosure of certain claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual discrimination.

The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct also has specific guidelines related to harassment and discrimination, which are discreditable to the profession, although they have not changed in recent years (see the sidebar, "AICPA Code Addresses Harassment, Discrimination"). Firms should reevaluate their statutory obligations by going over changes at the state and local levels with human resources or employment law experts to ensure that their practices are up to date.

LEADERS NEED TO PARTICIPATE

Setting the tone at the top is the best way to get the message through to potential perpetrators that harassment isn't tolerated, said Eric Bachman, a lawyer and chair of the discrimination and retaliation practices at Washington firm Zuckerman Law. Leaders need to create policies prohibiting sexual harassment, make...

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