by Kelly VanBuskirk
“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book 1, Ch. 1
All employers are at times required to address employee complaints of inappropriate behaviour in their workplaces. Yet in 2018, harassment-based complaints have attracted heightened attention and concern, in one part as a result of new legislation and regulations to curb harassment and in another part due to acute social awareness of the occurrence and effects of harassment (particularly sexual harassment). On this latter point, since the birth of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, hundreds of sexual harassment allegations have emerged, often resulting in intense public scrutiny, controversy and upset. Now there is evidence that the risk of being the subject of a complaint is driving another workplace dilemma: some senior managers and CEOs are withholding mentorship opportunities from subordinate workers as a means of reducing risk exposure to legal liability and internet shame. While this is an understandable reaction to the current social climate, it adds yet another layer of legal and organizational risks for companies. Managers have to be strategic in protecting their employees and themselves from harassment incidents.
The increasing inclination to withdraw from mentorship
The current managerial instinct to withdraw from mentoring relationships with female co-workers is widespread. A recent poll conducted by Leanin.org, the Sheryl Sandberg-led organization that promotes female empowerment, suggests that:
Thirty per cent of male managers surveyed said they are uncomfortable working alone with female colleagues, over twice the percentage who said so in the past. Meanwhile, the number of male managers who have concerns about mentoring women more than tripled, from 5 per cent to 16 per cent.
While the central subject matter of this commentary is workplace sexual harassment, it is plausible that a similar effect has been or will be experienced as a result of non-sexual harassment allegation risks, as well.
Managerial withdrawal from mentorship is not a trivial problem, since mentoring has been identified as a prominent means of advancing diversity and improving workplace cultures. Research demonstrates that: a) employees who are mentored have a greater prospect of promotion; b) women are underrepresented in the senior management of many organizations; and women are less likely than men are to have an advocate within their organizations to help obtain advancement opportunities.
The instinct to withdraw mentorship opportunities, especially for males mentoring female mentees, is not completely irrational. There is always a risk that a mentor might behave badly or be perceived to behave badly, and it is likely this latter prospect that is driving many male managers to rethink their willingness to provide support to female co-workers.
Is the withdrawal of mentorship an overreaction?
It is predictable that some males are hesitant to mentor co-workers of the opposite sex, given the risk of harassment accusations and their frequently devastating career and social ramifications. This outcome is not, by the way, the exclusive domain of high-powered international moguls but also more and more the reality of “regular” people working in small and mid-sized companies. Furthermore, some vocal anti-harassment proponents assert that the publication of sexual harassment complaints against even some innocent males is a reasonable consequence of the larger effort to extinguish sexual harassment. Consider this assertion tweeted by Teen Vogue writer Emily Linden:
“I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations. Sorry. If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” 
If you think that Linden is out on a limb by herself with that extreme view, think again: more than 2,300 of her Twitter followers “liked” her message. Managers have to recognize that the appetite for extinguishing harassment may outweigh any inclination toward fair process.
In addition, the social discourse concerning sexual harassment has engaged debate over whether or not misconduct varies in degree and if it should be distinguished by circumstance and severity. In January 2018, Caitlin Flanagan recounted in The Atlantic this social media exchange:
Bill Maher told his audience about the trouble Matt Damon got into for saying that “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation.” That prompted Minnie Driver to tweet, “No. You don’t get to be hierarchical about abuse. You don’t get to tell women that because some guy only showed them his penis, their pain isn’t as great as a woman who was raped.”
Even if fair process were provided to a manager accused of harassment, then, it may be that the nature and extent of the alleged behaviour being investigated will be deemed irrelevant in respect of the portrayal and understanding of the conduct and in the prescription of a penalty.
Examining the question of context in harassment demonstrates how thorny the subject can be at times and how harassing behaviour can evolve without intention. While it is easy to be appalled at the despicable misconduct of someone like Harvey Weinstein, for example, some (including Caitlin Flanagan) have found it more difficult to vilify Aziz Ansari. Why? Because for some, the circumstances matter in assessing and responding to the nature and extent of the misconduct. Further illustrations of the sometimes nuanced conditions that can lead to harassment complaints can be found in legal claims arising from intoxication-influenced sexual activity in particular American universities, in which the question of consent is central. The responsibility to avoid and prevent harassment is crucial, and the risk of accusation is high.
Why withdrawing mentorship is tricky and potentially illegal
In an effort to insulate their employees from perceived harassment and themselves from harassment complaints, managers may be attracted to the idea of limiting interaction with employees and declining to mentor co-workers. The organizational challenges that this refusal presents are referenced above. Beyond those, however, it could be that this effort to avoid perceptions of harassing behaviour will attract a different kind of discrimination complaint based on differential treatment. This legal risk will arise if, as an example, a male manager refuses to mentor a female co-worker in favour of a male co-worker. As the statistical data demonstrate, male managers may now have that inclination as a means of avoiding harassment allegations, but it can result in yet another form of legal liability. If mentorship opportunities are going to be withdrawn, they should be withdrawn across the board in a way that treats all co-workers equally.
Steps for employers to consider in the #MeToo era
Maximizing the safety and security of employees is a pressing objective that cannot be overlooked. In order to help protect their employees from harassment and from unfair publication of false claims, employers should consider a series of four concrete proactive steps, which are relatively easy to follow:
- Use transformational leadership principles to shape and enforce inter-organizational respect.
- Prepare and regularly revisit a well-designed Anti-Harassment Policy.
- Implement your Anti-Harassment Policy with regular, effective training and enforce it with active management and a thorough, unbiased investigation and corrective measures process.
- Analyze your organization’s harassment risk factors and reduce or manage them.
Tammy D. Allen et al., “Career Benefits Associated with Mentoring for Proteges: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 1 (Feb. 2004): 127–36,http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-10572-010; Catalyst, Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement, 2010,http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/Mentoring_Necessary_But_Insufficient_for_Advancement_Final_120610.pdf, cited in https://leanin.org/mentor-her/
 Sylvia Ann Hewlett et al., The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2011), https://hbr.org/product/the-sponsor-effect-breaking-through-the-last-glass/an/10428-PDF-ENG.
 Emily Linden, Twitter. https://twitter.com/EmilyLindin/status/933073784822579200
 Caitlin Flanagan. The conversation #MeToo needs to have. The Atlantic, January 29, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/the-right-conversation-for-metoo/551732/
 Caitlin Flanagan. The humiliation of Aziz Ansari. The Atlantic, January 14m 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/the-humiliation-of-aziz-ansari/550541/
 Jane Roe v University of Cincinnati et al., 1:18cv312, at https://kcjohnson.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/roe-cincinnati-prelim-injunction-motion.pdf and John Doe v University of Miami, 17-3396 at http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/18a0029p-06.pdf