Experts: Firms must face #MeToo situations from start

Natalie Watson said she knows of some people who view the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements as threats to business.

“But I, as a defense attorney, view these movements as opportunities to continue to cultivate the types of cultures that we need in order to achieve our best potential as organizations, especially here in New Jersey,” Watson, partner at McCarter & English, said.

Watson moderated a diverse panel of speakers at the New Jersey chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth’s “Women of Leadership” event Tuesday at the Galloping Hill Golf Course in Kenilworth.

“There is a real push and focus for creating a culture of inclusion that is unfortunately not translating into the numbers,” Watson said, referring to the lack of women and minorities in leadership roles. “You run into folks who mean well, but the outcome is not necessarily what you want.”

Donna M. Hughes, senior vice president, human resources, of Impax Laboratories in Bridgewater, said companies need to be proactive right from the start.

“Practice selective hiring,” she told the crowd. “If you hire individuals into your organization who are inconsistent with your values, that is on you.

“You have made a huge miss, because you could have made sure that you used effective selection tools, such as interviewing people not just regarding their business acumen, but also how they might handle certain situations.”

The questions, she said, are easy.

“What do they believe they should do, for example, as a leader in a situation with a subordinate?” she said. “This is why I interview anyone coming into the organization above a certain level. I want to make sure we are setting a certain tone at the leadership level.”

For Hughes, it’s all about setting the standard.

“It is not really about what is illegal,” she said. “The question is: Will they violate policy or company values? That is the tone that we must set, and a tone, quite frankly, of common decency.”

Linda B. Hollinshead, partner, Duane Morris LLP, said employers must take the lead when confronted with a situation — understanding the outcome could go in a number of directions.

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ on the ACG event and workplace harassment.)

“I can tell you that there are 50 cases in which the fact pattern states how someone engaged in unlawful behavior and 50 cases of abhorrent behavior in which the court found not to violate the law,” she said.

“Many times, if we go back to the origin of the dispute, it was due to a lack of familiarity, a lack of community and a misunderstanding.”

Hollinshead, however, said companies cannot afford to wait on a ruling.

“While courts may say there is nothing unlawful about a one-time racist, sexist or religious joke in the workplace, I wouldn’t want to be that workplace that waits until it has an accumulation of severe and pervasive behaviors to act,” she said.

Acting from the beginning is key, she said.

“If an employer can control an issue, one in which someone has felt comfortable enough to come forward with, they not only have the opportunity to address it, but also have a much greater chance of being able to take hold of the situation than if it were to go to an external agency,” she said.