Men in positions of authority are in dire need of rules on appropriate workplace behaviour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 9:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 10:51pm

As a journalist, I love to witness people being burned at the stake. The spectacle never gets boring. The theme that represents the “stake” and the type of heresy may change. But the cheering crowd never fails to congregate – especially on the internet.

But like any witch hunt, the fervour and process grows to a point where anyone who questions any part of the entire process is seen as the enemy and cast into the well. If you sink you are innocent. If you float, you must be a witch and must be burnt at the stake.

Such is the momentum of a self-fulfilling trial. It’s a form of rough justice. Women could begin to face a silent backlash in the business community because of #MeToo. Its lack of due process and its viral characteristics present a new problem.

The past few months have opened up a steady avalanche of stories showing that sexual harassment takes place everywhere, from Hollywood to government. Silence breakers have convincingly showed how prevalent sexual misconduct has become, and how much damage it can do.

Read: #MeToo? Silence, shame and the cost of speaking out about sexual harassment in China

But to be clear, all the #MeToo revelations by these brave women were revelations that hadn’t gone through the due process of law, or an open court. That many alleged perpetrators have stepped down, publicly shamed, still doesn’t equate to a conviction in a court of law.

#MeToo will undoubtedly continue, taking on its own crusade, and the business community will have to move forward constructively to ensure workplace equality.

Social media is a tremendous dispenser of information and experience, but it isn’t a substitute for a justice system.

But, the entire phenomenon has spun out of its own orbit, verging on being almost out of control. Without any due process, it is bound to make mistakes and that is what stirs primal fears among male executives who are now trying to figure out how to relate to, promote and mentor females in the workplace.

Read: #MeToo movement unearths heartbreaking reality of sexual assault in Hong Kong

It has revealed a muddled and hypocritical feminist message that will require a rethink best summarised in a recent tweet by The New York Times’ Amy Chozick: “So Hillary, married to an alleged sexual abuser, took $ from an alleged sexual abuser to help her defeat an alleged sexual abuser and ended up losing partly b/c of an alleged sexual abuser.”

Rising through senior executive ranks requires bonding among peers and ultimately gaining the confidence of the top managers like CEOs.

That requires socialising, meeting for drinks and lunch, going on business trips to meet clients and develop business – all necessary activities that go into building trust and confidence in management and governance at all corporate levels. New guidelines and principles need to be developed.

For women to advance in the workplace, they need mentorship and institutional support. In workplaces dominated by senior men – especially in Hong Kong, where the ratio of senior women among board directors is one of the lowest in Asia – women managers need to be assured that they can be mentored or groomed without being sexually harassed as their corporate quid pro quo.

Senior men need to go through corporate training to raise their awareness on sexual harassment, and learn where the boundaries of their authority are. It’s not wrong to complement a colleague, or be seen in a restaurant alone with a junior women colleague, but men in positions of power had better learn what constitutes abuse of authority.

Read: Time magazine announces #MeToo movement as 2017 Person of the Year

The progress of women into the senior ranks of business will depend on how the disciplining of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour will be institutionalised into a due process.

This is the most difficult issue of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour in the workplace – how to prevent it and continue advancing equality.

Surrendering to the fear over sexual politics will only worsen the problem. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, pointed out that perhaps only real change will come when women have more power.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and a former international banker.