Where Was HR In All These Sexual Harassment Scandals?

With the number of reports of sexual harassment now a tidal wave, some very pointed questions are being asked:

“How could this have happened for all these years? Not only how could this have happened, Why didn’t anyone say anything? I well understand why victims don’t, what about everybody else?”

That’s celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain doing the asking. He’s been one of the few men speaking out, and speaking out both because his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento is among those who have been victimized, and because he regrets romanticizing the macho culture of the restaurant industry in his book, Kitchen Confidential.

Yet it’s a question we all should be asking, and not rhetorically, but specifically. And we all should be asking it of the human resource profession and the people tasked with ensuring employees are protected from the kind of behavior that now seems endemic.

There may have been a time when HR could claim, legitimately or not, that it was unaware things like this were happening. But after the Bill Cosby accusers came forward, and after the Penn State child abuse criminal case every HR employee deserving of being called a “professional” should have at least wondered, “Could this happen here?”

At Uber, HR Did Nothing

Any doubt would have been erased by last winter’s Uber scandal. Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer whose blog post exposed the sexist, chaotic culture of the company, said she complained to HR about being hit upon by her boss. But HR did nothing.

The fallout from that — a very public investigation, the resigntion of the CEO and more — should have been enough of a warning to HR leaders to look into their own house. Besides being the right thing to do, it would have been a wise business move. Being proactive about a toxic culture and toxic behavior can save a company its reputation, its people, its customers and, potentially millions in lawsuits.

But HR has not responded. As Susan Fowler found out when she complained, “I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’.”

Who Signs the Paycheck

No wonder then that Gretchen Carlson, who sued TV mogul Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, asks, “Is human resources really the right place to go?”

“In the end,” she told the audience last spring at Fortune’s annual NYC Most Powerful Women dinner, “If the culture’s being set from the top and it’s trickling down to the lower levels, human resources may not be looking out for you.”

It’s because of who signs the paychecks, she added.

It is not an easy situation when the perpetrator is the CEO or some other top executive. Speaking truth to power can be both personally costly, utterly futile or both. Yet, if we are to change these kinds of toxic cultures and stop this kind of behavior, we must confront it and HR should be the ones to be in the lead.

What Can Be Done?

Over the last several months, a few TLNT contributors have proposed steps HR can take that will make a difference. These are evolutionary actions, rather than confrontational, so, while they will make a difference, they won’t deal with the here and now.

In a moment, I’ll detail the suggestions including links to where you’ll find specifics. First, though, let me tell you what is missing in the profession. It’s courage. For the past few weeks I’ve been reaching out to a few HR practitioners asking them to talk with me or write an article themselves on this issue. The responses I’ve gotten range from no response at all to an “I have no time” excuse to a “not really in the wheelhouse” comment from a PR group.

Is this such a hot potato that working HR practitioners would rather not speak publicly about it? I’m afraid the answer is yes. In the many articles that have appeared online and in print about the unfolding sexual harassment scandals, I have yet to see the profession front and center. In fact, most of the news article don’t have any comment from an HR professional at all. Newsweek‘s “How Human Resources Is Failing Women Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment” quotes lawyers and a former recruiter. A Los Angeles Times article, “She’s harassed at work, she tells human resources, and they do nothing. Here’s how to fix that,” quotes one, very fortunate HR VP who has direct access to the company board of directors. The rest of the quotes come from academics.

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What Has SHRM Said?

And where is SHRM? The Newsweek article says some unnamed SHRM spokeswoman “argues that HR does what it can.” That’s all I could find, except for this: SHRM reposted a Q&A from the HR Box blog in which the advice given to a question about why bother going to HR includes this uncomfortable admission: “I have to agree with you that HR is getting a black eye from these stories.  I’ve seen many comments bad-mouthing HR for not doing more.”

And then it goes on to offer this defense of HR: “a human resources department does not have much power or influence.” Maybe. Probably true in many cases, but that doesn’t exonerate the profession from a moral duty.

Incentivized to Protect the Harasser

Laurie Ruettimann, a former HR leader and now consultant and outspoken blogger, bluntly explained that: “HR is incentivized to protect the harasser. And sometimes the person in power might not be the best and brightest, but they’re still in power. They win.”

What’s her advice to victims? Complain to HR and immediately start looking for another job. When you find one, tell your story to the world.

How very sad that is.

A Bloomberg article on HR’s role includes this comment:

“Employees have every right, in some companies, to look at HR as a tool of management, not as an advocate of employees,” says David Lewis, who has worked in HR for 31 years and now runs a consultancy. “You can’t get around the fact that HR reports to management.”

SHRM Code of Ethics

Being a professional requires fidelity to an ethical standard that transcends blind obedience to an employer’s wishes. The Society for Human Resource Management has a code of ethics. One of its Core Principles is to be “ethically responsible for promoting and fostering fairness and justice for all employees and their organizations.” This means, according to the SHRM guideline, to “Treat people with dignity, respect and compassion to foster a trusting work environment free of harassment, intimidation, and unlawful discrimination.”

Some Long Term Steps

Now, briefly, here are a few things you can do to start addressing the problem. These apply regardless of what kind of culture you have. Obviously, if you are lucky enough to have an open, positive, supportive culture, having a frank and direct conversation with your CEO and the executive team is something you can do now. In other environments — and that doesn’t necessarily mean toxic; merely  indifferent counts, too — implementing these suggestions will take time. In the end, though, they will help you make a difference:

  1. Demonstrate with data how positive corporate cultures drive innovation and lead to a higher performance.
  2. Recruit and promote women into leadership positions. There are multiple studies showing that companies with more women leaders are more profitable and their leaders more effective.
  3. Don’t wait for complaints, talk to people. Don’t allow a situation to fester, take action.
  4. When you interview candidates for manager and especially  executive positions ask them about complaints or disciplinary action against them.

Where are you on this?

John Zappe is the editor of TLNT.com and a contributing editor of ERE.net. John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.

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13 Comments on “Where Was HR In All These Sexual Harassment Scandals?

  1. How many of you have ever worked an an org where HR was the final word on whether an employee stays or goes – especially in these situations? What I see missing from this conversation is how HR, Legal and Leadership work together – I would bet that in most situations where inappropriate conduct is mishandled, this relationship is dysfunctional at best, and most likely adversarial. HR needs to do better…and not JUST HR.

  2. How about check out all cases where HR did something? Oh well, they didn’t attract media attention, because it’s boring to publish an article about properly done HR investigation an consequences of harassment. I’m pretty sure that HR practitioners didn’t want to talk to you or write an article on this issue not because of lack of courage, but because we just don’t trust journalists. We might have this weird feeling that whatever you say to journalists they’re gonna paint you as that cowardice HR person who is hired to cover up executives, because it’s so much more interesting to write about that.

    1. Well said. Most cases companies AREN’T going to publish, because the nature of sexual harassment is a stain on a company’s reputation. And not trusting journalists – another thank you for stating this. The spin on “journalistic” reporting, and I use that term loosely, continues to amaze me in today’s society. What happened to reporting the news, not judging it?

      1. Also there are plenty of internal investigations that are “he said – she said”. Even if you believe that one of them is telling the truth, you still can’t penalize the other one because of lack of evidence. And another part of the story that HR is prohibited to discuss what they did to harasser with a complainant. This is exactly the moment when complainant usually says – HR did nothing. In reality, we don’t know what Uber HR did, and we haven’t read their investigation notes.

  3. Here’s the challenge, HR. You MUST be willing to be DISLIKED. By employees, by managers. You MUST be willing to take immediate action, even against the grain of the “boys club” leadership. You must be willing to do the right thing. Always. You must be prepared to swim upstream and against the flow. Ultimately, you might find yourself outside the realm of influence because you are outspoken, because you walk the tightrope between employees and management. Values in the workplace wins out. If someone – anyone – makes a complaint – it must be investigated. No matter how painful. I’ve had senior executives yell at me for “forcing them” to fire someone for harassing employees. My ultimate question to them at the time was, “would you want your daughter working for this man?” I’ve had the President of a company I formerly worked for, go to my supervisor because I challenged his decision. At the end of the day, my integrity is intact. Don’t go into HR because you “like people.” Go into HR because you want to make a difference – sometimes that is painful, and it often does NOT win you any friends.

    1. Yes! I’ve always approached it as doing the right thing, not collecting friendships. Unfortunately, in many situations, advocating for the right thing and spending a career educating, advising, coaching and complying not only doesn’t win you any friends, it may lose you your job.

  4. John, this is a great post. There is no single fix for something as complicated as sexual harassment – unfortunately. I do believe part of the solution is HR driving more open, facilitated and direct conversation among managers, employees and leaders about what is appropriate behavior. Key to this is sharing examples of actual things people are doing in the company that are good and bad. There is no excuse for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, I believe many leaders do not realize when they are being predatory just as many leaders also do not realize when they are being assholes. All they see is “this behavior is getting me what I want right now”. They do not perceive how it is affecting employees emotionally. In their mind, sexual harassment is something other people do, but what they are doing is okay because “its not really harassment” even though it clearly is.

    By facilitating open conversations about actual behaviors that might seem acceptable to some but not to others, including what is the right thing to do when harassment occurs, HR can help build a shared mental model of what is and is not okay. This won’t address all sexual harassment, but it will decrease the implicit acceptance in some companies that sexual harassing behaviors are “just a part of work”. And it will give people a vocabulary to address a topic many are afraid to discuss because they don’t know how to talk about it.

    HR is the right organization to drive these conversations. But they must have the confidence and skill to get people to talk about something that may be perceived as threatening by some and inappropriate by others.

  5. It only took one trip to HR for me to realize that asking HR for help in getting my boss to stop trying to have a “romantic” relationship with me was a huge mistake. I had to figure out how to navigate the male ego, power, problems independently. Learning how to say “no,” without making a powerful man want to punish you, was a soft skill that an ambitious woman either learned or died by. Sadly, that HR Director I asked for help remained my biggest detractor and fought my career advancement at every step he could thereafter. Fortunately, his view of me did not outweigh my effectiveness in achieving results for the company – and turning some of the men I had turned down – into friends/supporters.

  6. As Mary highlights, governance of HR, and how well HR is supported by the executive team, is the key driver of how effective HR might be in any given situation (including sexual harassment). In many organizations, the governance model is wrong, so HR may advise how to handle things, but is somewhat neutered in the its stewardship mandate to support the organization’s goals around legal risk, culture, etc. HR is subjugate by operations or executive leadership, which tends to take HR’s advice under consideration, and then do what they want. This is particular true when the leadership team is not values driven, which happens way more than you think.

    I’ve been at organizations where HR was told “Do this, we are willing to accept the risk.”

    So to ask, where was HR is not the right question. In many cases HR is there, and advising the team on a course of action, and the team chose to accept the risk and choose a different path.

    It’s almost always a governance and leadership issue.

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