Q&A with Managing Attorney Jessica Childress
In a brief look back on the 20th century, it’s amazing to reflect on how much progress we’ve made in advancing and protecting human rights. But even 100 years after passing women’s right to vote, we still have a long way to go. With the growing momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp, will the next frontier for advocacy and change happen in the workplace?
It’s a question we’re dedicated to exploring at WorkHuman, March 18-21 in Nashville, Tenn., – and one that managing attorney Jessica Childress will discuss in her session on “HR’s Role in Responding to #MeToo.” In our Q&A with Jessica, she talks about the important role men have in responding to #MeToo and how to fight cultures of silence and harassment with empowerment, respect, and advocacy.
Read the full interview below or listen to the audio in the player at the bottom of this post.
Globoforce: Can you tell us a bit about what led you to employment law, and specifically sexual harassment and discrimination cases?
Jessica: First of all, I’m very excited to be joining you at WorkHuman in March. I think it’s going to be a great conference, and we’ll be discussing issues that I’m very passionate about.
I became an employment lawyer because I love the idea of advocacy. I went to law school to become a civil rights attorney, and I think employment law has many aspects of civil rights, especially when you think about sexual harassment and discrimination. I am giving a voice to people in the workplace who have felt oppressed or that their rights have been trammeled upon in some way. There is no better place to be an advocate, especially in this day and age, than in the employment law space. There are many issues of civil rights that come up in employment law, and so that’s what really led me down this road and has kept me here.
“There is no better place to be an advocate … than in the employment law space.”
Globoforce: What are the legal and financial risks for companies that don’t get ahead of harassment issues?
Jessica: I’ve worked on both sides of the table. For many years, I represented primarily management, and now I represent mostly employees. From a management side, when you have an employment law litigation, that can totally disrupt the operations of your company. You really want to stay on top of cultural problems in the workplace, because those issues can lead to litigation. Litigation is costly; it’s time-consuming; it’s a morale drain; and the way to prevent a litigation is to stay on top of issues of harassment. If you think there’s an issue that is affecting diversity and inclusion, or the cultural values of the organization in an adverse way, management really has the obligation to stay on top of those issues. Financially and from a morale standpoint, it can be totally disruptive to the organization if the organization has to defend a lawsuit.
Globoforce: Since #MeToo gained traction at the end of 2017, we’ve seen many leaders in the entertainment industry exposed for sexual harassment. What has the impact of #MeToo been in other industries?
Jessica: #MeToo is totally not specific to the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry is perfect for good headlines, but #MeToo and sexual harassment affects every industry equally. It’s up to the leaders in these industries – both men and women – to say they’re not standing for a culture of harassment or a culture of silence anymore. It really is a moral imperative for leaders in every industry, to stand up and say, “time’s up.”
“#MeToo and sexual harrassment affects every industry equally.”
Globoforce: In many cases, the abuse continues because nobody speaks up, even if they witness unacceptable behavior. Whose job is it to create that culture of anti-harassment and inclusion? Is it HR?
Jessica: I put an emphasis on leaders, but it’s up to everyone. There can’t be a bystander effect. That’s where companies have the obligation to train everyone in the organization – interns, contractors, the CEO. Everyone in the organization needs to be trained and feel empowered to speak up.
It’s not easy to speak up. When thought leaders talk about speaking up, they can be very cavalier, like it’s something that’s second nature. I’m a lawyer, so I’ve been trained to speak up through oral advocacy and writing. But it’s not easy for people who don’t have advocacy as their job to speak up on behalf of others. We have to empower people in all strata of an organization to feel comfortable going to HR or to a manager to address harassment. This isn’t a man v. woman situation. The obligation to speak up on behalf of anyone who you feel is being treated unfairly is incumbent upon everyone who works within the organization.
Globoforce: Last month, Gillette released an ad that addresses the important role men play in responding to #MeToo. So, how can we think about men as being part of the solution here?
Jessica: The ad does a great job in addressing accountability for men. Historically, men have faced the brunt of the allegations of sexual harassment. Men have a very important role, in saying, “Hey, that’s not OK,” when they see another man being disrespectful or not following company values. Men being advocates and partners in this #MeToo movement is critical. Many men have stepped up to say, “If there’s something that I’m doing wrong, tell me, and please tell me how I can help you.” That advocacy and that partnership is just so important in keeping this movement alive and changing company culture.
“Men being advocates and partners in this #MeToo movement is critical.”
Globoforce: How can company values play into culture change?
Jessica: Culture is critical. Culture guides every step that an organization should take. If your company hasn’t defined your culture well, you can be susceptible to harassment allegations. Company values are extremely important. Companies should have diversity, inclusion, and respect at the core of their values. If they do that, there’s really no way they can allow behavior that doesn’t align with those values.
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