When I was in Austin, I asked conference attendees why HR has accomplished so little. Over and over, they gave me a version of the same answer: They don’t have power. They can deliver the trainings and write the policies, they can take reports and conduct investigations, but unless the harasser is of relatively low status within the organization, they have little say in the outcome. Most of the time, if the man is truly important to the company, the case is quickly whisked out of HR’s hands, the investigation delivered to lawyers and the final decision rendered by executives. These executives are under no legal imperative to terminate an alleged offender or even to enforce a particular sanction, only to ensure that the woman who made the report is safe in the future.
Making a show out of tossing highly placed harassers to the curb proved good for business during the early and middle phases of #MeToo. But social change that is built on a popular movement is destined to fade when that movement becomes less fashionable. Already the country has begun to move on. The steady drumbeat of famous men being fired has slowed, and a backlash against what are perceived as unfair punishments has gathered strength. In April, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a New York Times Magazine cover story about allegations of an extensive pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination at Sterling Jewelers, a chain of retailers that includes Kay, Jared, and Zales. Here was a major writer reporting on an important subject—it was the kind of piece that a year earlier would have gotten the attention of the country. But as the #MeToo movement wanes, outrage has turned to resigned acceptance.