HR professionals face personnel challenges daily. Theirs is a service role – and their days are filled with opportunities to assist with hiring – or dismissals, to mediate conflicts, to process role changes, to interview, to coach, and more.
One of the more demanding roles HR professionals play – and maybe one of the most disheartening – occurs when a harassment or discrimination complaint is made. What the conflict requires from HR is immediate investigation, fair application of rules and policies, discretion throughout – and protection of those harmed by the activities of another.
Your company likely has clear policies in place to guide respectful behaviors by all players – be they senior executives, interns, or anyone in between. Your HR department also likely has clear processes in place to guide the fair investigation of complaints – and to hold those accountable for their actions.
Clear policies that outline respectful treatment of others doesn’t mean that everyone embraces those policies. It’s just like speed limits on our highways. A speed limit sign of 65 miles per hour is a formalized policy for speed on that roadway, yet people ignore those limits all the time. When drivers exceed posted limits, they put others at risk. And, they’ve broken the law.
There are processes in place on our highways which enable trained professionals – highway patrol and police officers – to engage the speeder, investigate what occurred, and hold them accountable for their actions. Accountability for a speeder might range from a ticket (which might cost the speeder insurance points as well as cash penalties) to jail time.
When the process gets ‘muddy’
In companies, harassment or discrimination policies and processes get muddy when a senior leader is the subject of the complaint. (Note that a similar muddiness occurs when the highway speeder demands special treatment from the highway patrol officer because of their status – such as a famous actor, a politician, a member of the royal family, etc.)
If your company’s owner or CEO is the subject of a harassment complaint, your heart rate might increase. But you know what must happen. HR serves the greater good across the company, which requires consistent, professional engagement in these issues.
HR can’t play favorites. Any evidence of special treatment in the investigation towards a senior leader or anyone “in power” will erode the credibility of the HR department for years.
Can we make a workplace safe from the boss? Not easily, say the experts at Wharton: Can We Make the Workplace Safe When the Harasser Is the Boss?
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So, you engage your processes to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing. You conduct a thorough investigation. You give both sides of the story equal attention. The CEO might be entirely innocent of the charges, or he or she might be entirely guilty. Fairness requires that you and your team engage to discover the facts, and then present your recommendations, no matter the title or role of any of the players.
And, it may get muddy. Besides the request for special treatment, I’ve seen two different dynamics come into play and complicate the situation.
Withstand the pressure
On one hand, the accused – the owner or CEO – may discount the impact of the behavior or interaction. They’ll explain away the problem, maybe by saying, “No one was hurt in this. How can we make it go away?” or “She came on to me,” or “We both had too much to drink. No harm done!”
By discounting the impact, the accused is trying to get away with bad behavior. Don’t be distracted – let the processes and investigation run their course, fairly and thoroughly.
On the other hand, others in the company – peers in HR or senior leaders concerned about the CEO’s reputation – can exert undue pressure to “set this one aside.” You may be strong in your conviction to engage in a thorough process of investigation, but your strength may be challenged if others “in power” attempt to interrupt the process.
These influencers may think they’re doing the right thing for the company, but HR professionals know what is required. Nothing must stand in the way of a thorough, fair investigation and accountability for bad behavior.
Don’t let dynamics like these inhibit a fair process – and fair consequences – no matter who is accused.