Language Matters in the #MeToo Movement

March 5, 2018 Laurie Ruettimann, Guest Blogger

Language Matters

You can’t go online without hearing about another leader falling from grace. We don’t always know what happened, but we assume it’s bad.

Ford Motor Company just fired a top executive for misconduct. A company investigation found that Raj Nair’s behavior was inconsistent with the company’s culture and code of conduct, but a spokesperson declined to use specific language to elaborate on the claims.

Also, a senior executive at UNICEF resigned after he acknowledged “some personal mistakes” in his previous role at another charity called Save the Children. BBC Radio 4’s PM programme investigated complaints against Justin Forsyth and found inappropriate texts toward women and comments on their appearances, what they were wearing, and how he perceived them.

Nair and Forsyth breached the trust of shareholders and colleagues by behaving in ways that demeaned and diminished the experiences of women in the workplace. However, the public has a limited understanding of what happened. We only know what journalists report, and it seems that neither organization used clear or common language to apologize, take ownership, and share their plans to combat workplace harassment in the future.

Is Anybody Sorry?

These aren’t the first two men to get fired for behaving poorly at work, and they won’t be the last. Personally, I’m tired of #MeToo press releases that are vague, unrepentant, and written by public relations experts who want us to forget that something wrong just happened.

Language matters. I believe there’s a better way for companies to confront and apologize for misconduct in the workplace. Rather than using the codified language of cowards and rascals who want to distract us with buzzwords and legal jargon, organizations can use plain-spoken language and say sorry.

When top executives are fired for creating cultures of toxic masculinity, it’s not outrageous to ask that companies offer a sincere apology. Leaders ought to be more remorseful. Use the words, “I’m sorry.” Then, follow up with the public and provide a specific action plan on how your company will prevent misconduct.

Say What You Mean

It’s important for company spokespeople and executives to start speaking like real human beings. How you speak reflects your organizational culture. People in the talent-driven economy don’t have the time or patience for leaders who expect the best from workers but can’t take ownership of their own mistakes. Why would the best and brightest workers want to align themselves with brands that can’t take a hard look at their culture and commit to specific remedies?

A plainspoken apology doesn’t put you at risk of being sued, no matter what the lawyers tell you. Research shows that doctors and hospitals should apologize when they make a mistake because it leads to better legal outcomes, improves trust between institutions and communities, and doesn’t increase the chances of a lawsuit.

Crisis communication is tough. It’s a reasonable response to limit bad exposure. What makes it worse? Using language to bob and weave around accountability, responsibility, and culpability.

Talking About #MeToo Helps

Talking about #MeToo is tough, but it’s getting harder and harder for HR leaders and talent acquisition professionals to manage the cognitive dissonance of creating bold and authentic recruitment marketing strategies while using timid, vague language to express regret when leaders get fired.

If your company had a #MeToo moment, it’s time to speak honestly about that story. Find lawyers and public relations experts who can help you be accountable but win back affinity for your brand. And if you’re looking for tips and ideas on how to reconcile past allegations of workplace harassment with your future goals for redefining and reshaping your culture, the historic #MeToo panel at WorkHuman is an opportunity to learn something new.

Globoforce will host a panel discussion on the #MeToo movement and its impact on the modern workplace during its WorkHuman 2018 conference, April 2-5, 2018, at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Moderated by top-rated Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant, the panel will cover critical takeaways to help you create a more human, inclusive, and respectful workplace.

I hope to see you in Austin where we can learn how to reshape our language and change organizational cultures for the better. The conversation about changing the future of work can’t happen without you!

Language matters in the #MeToo movement, says @lruettimann
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