It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that it has been just over one year since the launch of the #MeToo movement. In the past year, hugely powerful men (and some women) – leaders in business, media, politics – have fallen from grace. The crimes that they, and many others like them, have committed are abhorrent and grotesque. At one year old, #MeToo still has a long way to go. But at the very least it has achieved a climate where fewer of these crimes can go unnoticed, or swept under the rug, or shrugged off as “the way things are”.
Things are changing at HBS, too. This month The Harbus reports on the introduction of an online tutorial on “Sexual Violence and Harassment at HBS,” which for the first time ever has been a mandatory requirement for incoming RCs to complete in pre-matriculation. The HBS community’s goal is zero sexual violence. The tutorial aims to help students identify situations of sexual harassment and recognize inappropriate behaviours.
On this campus, given the hyper-social nature of the HBS experience, we wonder if business school students encounter more grey areas when it comes to interpersonal relationships than students at perhaps any other form of graduate school. Data from the pilot tutorial shows that, aside from one instance, none of the questions raised (as to whether a given situation was or wasn’t okay) elicited a unanimous response. Students may have been unsettled by the lack of closure provided by their peers’ responses. But the tutorial was clearly designed to illustrate situations which are not black and white. Understanding that people in the same community think differently to one another is how to start the conversation.
Once we are aware that grey areas exist, how do we know how to act? In the business world, some HR departments have started to address this ambiguity by providing male and female employees with guidelines for how to interact with each other. In many cases, this is an important extension of any good company’s Code of Conduct. Sexual harassment or assault should never be tolerated. However in some cases, the reaction seems to have gone too far: Netflix, for example, reportedly considered a rule prohibiting people on film sets from locking eyes for more than five seconds. We have also heard rumors (unconfirmed) of firms suggesting that, if a male employee is joined in an elevator by a woman, he should exit rather than continuing in the elevator alone with her.
Are these the type of institutions that we hope to join and to lead post-HBS? At Harvard Business School, first year students take Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA) as part of the Required Curriculum. According to the course description, LCA teaches students about “the responsibilities of companies, their leaders, and their boards.” One year on from #MeToo, has our sense of responsibility changed? Business leaders have a responsibility to their employees and to society to take a meaningful stand against sexual violence and harassment. But they cannot prescribe every male-female interaction – and nor should they.
In LCA, students wrestle with decisions where there is no clear right or wrong path to take. Through these case studies, we see how our actions and choices in these situations reflect our personal value systems. This exercise, and the debate that it fosters, strengthens our moral compasses. A prescriptive approach – whether in business, in our social lives, or in the HBS pre-matric tutorial – would take this decision-making process out of our hands. This diminishes our accountability to ourselves and our values, and to each other. That would be a disappointing legacy of #MeToo. We are defined by the choices that we make in the grey zones. Let’s not leave that lesson in the classroom.