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Will the MeToo movement create real change in the workplace in 2018?

CHICAGO  If 2017 was the year of a national reckoning on workplace sexual harassment, 2018 may be when reports from victims in cubicles and corner offices start piling up.

Here's why that's a good thing: Before companies can begin to rid the workplace of inappropriate behavior, observers say, employers need to go beyond handbooks and Powerpoint presentations to create an environment where employees feel safe and supported enough to report it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that three-fourths of all workplace harassment goes unreported, so as victims feel empowered, reports of sexual harassment may climb.

In a June 2016 report, more than a year before allegations against Harvey Weinstein were reported, the EEOC suggested managers be praised for an increase in sexual harassment complaints in their departments. Such an uptick would show that victims feel comfortable coming forward, the agency said.

Sexual harassment reporting has remained fairly steady over the last decade. The EEOC received nearly 27,000 complaints in 2016 that included an accusation of sex-based workplace harassment. Just over 1,300 of those were in Illinois. That's a slight increase from the previous two years.

Scott Fanning, a labor and employment attorney at Fisher Phillips, is among those who agree that harassment reports will likely increase in 2018 as more victims feel empowered to speak up. He also believes the most serious forms of harassment will decline as some would-be perpetrators curb their behavior in light of extra-vigilant co-workers.

"The last thing employers want is to be the next  MeToo story in the news," Fanning said.

In the past month, companies across Chicago have begun meeting with employees to start addressing the issue.

Avant, an online consumer lender, took the rare step in early December of hosting a discussion with a manager from its human resources department as well as an outside expert on employee assistance plans and a prevention educator from not-for-profit Rape Victims Advocates. Chris Armsey, a senior vice president, said the forum was an effort to spark conversation in the tech industry and across other businesses that have been afraid to speak openly about harassment or fearful that a discussion would paint a target on the company. It was the first time the company tackled the issue with all its employees together, as well as the first time it invited the public in to talk about a sensitive subject.

"I don't want to say that we've cracked the code, but we have a culture where we can talk about it," Armsey said.

Avant has about 500 employees and women account for about 45 percent of the staff, according to spokeswoman Carolyn Blackman Gasbarra. She declined to say whether the company had received sexual harassment complaints.

The Lawton Constitution

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