Business in the #MeToo Era

As companies look to ensure equality the result is opportunity for new businesses.

The long-overdue spotlight is shining strongly on sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior in the workplace. More recently, the conversation has expanded to address additional gender inequities in the working world, including unequal pay, unfair promotion processes and the under-representation of women-owned businesses in the marketplace.

One absolute to be learned from all this is that every business should have clear employee guidelines on a number of topics, but very specifically in regards to sexual harassment and personal behavior. Even if you have just a single employee, a well-defined set of policies and expectations clearly written and presented to your staff is simply imperative. Most businesses also ask employees to sign a brief form indicating that they have read the policies, understand them and will adhere to them.

We live in a litigious world and employers should make sure they are buffered against any kind of employment-related claims and suits. Beyond that, a workplace framed by guidelines and expectations is happier, safer and more productive for all. No one should be harassed, in any way, at work.

As the conversation unfolds about these longstanding problems, one very positive byproduct is that new opportunities for women are being created. Companies are rushing to address issues of workplace harassment, which is a good start; along the way no small number of them are also exploring their policies regarding pay and advancement. Government always moves more slowly than the private sector, but perhaps this will spur passage of more equal pay legislation. The media continues to cover these stories regularly, keeping that spotlight bright.

From the entrepreneurial perspective, there are several positive developments for enterprising women. Financial institutions and other potential entrepreneurial funding sources are expressing increased interest in supporting the launch and growth of women-owned businesses. Businesses and business networks are being formed specifically to support women business owners. Women customers are also making an effort to patronize women-owned businesses.

Not surprisingly, a number of new, women-owned businesses have started up in the past year to provide career and personal counseling for women experiencing bias and harassment in the workplace. Similarly, women-owned law firms are expanding the services they offer to clients who find themselves in these types of situations.

Returning for a moment to the issue of harassment itself, quite a few new enterprises have been launched to help address the problem.

Examples include firms offering anonymous, third-party reporting of harassment; firms offering policy development and employee training to eliminate workplace harassment; firms that help businesses recruit and retain more female employees (and board members); and even firms developing matrices and software to help employers identify potential harassment risks before they happen.

In addition to corporate culture and policy, there are now architectural and design firms looking at workplace layouts to eliminate potential biases in the physical space. As pervasive as the harassment problem has become, there is almost no limit to the ways the situation can be addressed and improved.

This has further spread to similar fields such as school and workplace bullying, and improving the workplace for people of color.
Someone with experience in any of these fields might examine the local business community and see if there are opportunities to provide these types of services in southeast Louisiana.

Harassment, bias and/or inequity of any kind in the workplace is completely unacceptable, and companies that continue to tolerate this will be facing more and more consequences — as well they should. At the same time, solving these deeply rooted problems creates some really promising entrepreneurial options. One further way justice may be served for years of unequal opportunity is if a tide of new, successful women entrepreneurs rolls in to seize these current opportunities.

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.