US advertising firms grapple with 'Me Too', industry officials say they are rethinking workplace policies

A woman sits by a #MeToo sign as she looks at her phone on the campus of the University of Utah, on Sept 26, 2018.
A woman sits by a #MeToo sign as she looks at her phone on the campus of the University of Utah, on Sept 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK (AFP) - Some of corporate America's dirty secrets were aired last week at a conference that overlapped the anniversary of the "Me Too" movement and the contentious debate over Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed as the latest Supreme Court justice on Saturday (Oct 6).

An Advertising Week session on human resources veered between confession and crusading.

One speaker described the indignity of being harassed while pregnant. Others discussed soul-crushing details of working on non-disclosure agreements for harassment victims paid off to leave the company and keep quiet.

Advertising - a field that, like entertainment, sometimes rewards those who push the boundaries - is yet another industry that has seen executives pushed out of major firms following allegations of sexual misconduct.

"There are a lot of ways in which HR has been complicit," said Ms Rebecca Weaver, co-founder of HR Uprise, an activist group launched over the last year.

"If you've ever sent out that e-mail saying 'so and so has resigned to explore other opportunities', you're lying to your team," said Ms Weaver, who called for a "reckoning" in human resource policies for the long-time good of the industry.

The conference was held as the United States reeled over the nomination - and eventual confirmation - of Judge Kavanaugh to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court after several women accused him of sexual assault in the 1980s.

The Kavanaugh allegations came a year into the "Me Too" uprising spawned by horror stories of Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and other serial harassers usually aided by a phalanx of corporate henchmen.

Senior female advertising executives came together earlier this year to form Times Up Advertising to "create equitable and safe cultures within our agencies", according to a mission statement signed by 180 women.

"Sexual harassment is not OK. Never. No exceptions. No amount of talent, missed cues, or being great in the room unchecks the No Sexual Harassment box," said the letter. "Time's up on silence."

 
 

The more anarchic Diet Madison Avenue, an anonymously run Instagram account, is also pushing for changes in the industry, calling out agencies and alleged individual harassers, leading to some dismissals.

One of those executives, Mr Ralph Watson, denied the allegations and sued Diet Madison Avenue in a California court for defamation after he was dismissed from Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

Lawyers in the case for Mr Watson and Diet Madison Avenue are sparring over whether Instagram should be forced to respond to a subpoena that could unmask the group.

Industry officials say they are rethinking workplace policies, including teaching bystanders to speak up, and allowing victims to feel safe filing a complaint.

Experts say behavioural remedies could be far more critical than tweaking written policies in turgid employee handbooks.

One focus is on "bystander training", getting employees to call out sexist or racist statements made by colleagues.

Referring to the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape in which Billy Bush laughed as US President Donald Trump made lewd comments about women, Ms Weaver, the HR expert, who works at a Seattle advertising firm, told AFP, "you're really trying to reach Billy Bush and not Donald Trump".

Interpublic Group has used anonymous surveys to try to find trouble spots, and explicitly encouraged people who have suffered harassment to come forward.

The agency hopes employees will no longer feel the need for a "whisper network" in which employees exchange horror stories but nothing is done institutionally, said Ms Heide Gardner, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic.

"We want to be sure that people feel safe stepping up," Ms Gardner said in an interview. "I would like to see us shift the tone so that when we come to work, we set up everyone for success."