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.

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.

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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

John Zappe is contributing editor of ERE.net, and the former editor of the now closed Fordyce Letter. 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. 

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 by clicking here.