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HR perceived as enabling a sexual harassment environment

November 27, 2017

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Many pundits accuse human resources of enabling a sexual harassment environment.  HR is “as bad as FEMA after Katrina,” said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.  “HR is a management support function,” Namie said. “They’re all about liability protection, and they’re worried about protecting the organization.” 

According to a 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), four in ten women report enduring unwanted advances in a work environment, which could include a come-on, a gendered insult, and sexual assault (which goes beyond harassment and become criminal). More importantly less than 6% to 13% ever lodge a formal complaint, the EEOC found. Moreover, less than a third tell their bosses or human resources.

Why don’t they report it?  Lack of trust of HR is one reason.  Fear that they could derail their careers is another.  Fear of being identified as a difficult employee, not a team player, who cannot take a “joke” is another reason.  Also included is fear that no one will believe them or fear of retaliation.

“That primarily has to do with fear,” said Lilia Cortina, a psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher at the University of Michigan. “There’s fear of retaliation. Fear of being a troublemaker. Fear of the reporting process.”

Sabrina Siddiqui was a new reporter in Washington DC and sought a veteran reporter’s guidance.  They met for lunch, where he dispensed advice — but later, he started sending her messages about how “sexy” she looked. “I didn’t know what to do,” Siddiqui said in an interview. “At that time, I was only 24. I was young. I was scared. I didn’t want to take on someone senior to me.” Siddiqui feared the man’s power. He’d been in the industry much longer and seemed to know everyone. He also happened to be married.   “What are going to be the ramifications of challenging someone?” she said. “When you lack the authority in the eyes of society to do so and you know a lot more people who will rise to his defense?”

Think of the actresses that finally told what Harvey Weinstein did.  Many of them were young and afraid of repercussions and stated that they did not believe that anyone would do anything about it.

The average number of annual sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC between 2010 and 2016 has held steady in the 12,500+/- range, with most coming from women. Government researchers say they don’t know why the reports have remained practically the same for the last seven years.   “There was a point in time when they were going up, and women and other people were more willing to come forward,” said Chai Feldblum, an EEOC Commissioner.   What’s troubling now about reports, Feldblum said is that “over the last five years, they have not gone down.”

And even though many of the publicly reported incidents are coming from the movie and tech industries, Commissioner Feldblum reports that it is unfortunately not limited to those industries.  “It cuts across all industries,” Feldblum said. “It cuts across all income levels. All races, ages, and sexual orientations. It is really quite horrific how pervasive and persistent sex-based harassment is.”

So how can HR “repair” it’s image and build a culture of respect and fair and equal treatment?  One of the major issues for HR is their reporting line.  Many HR departments report to the CFO, not directly to the CEO.  It’s looked at as a cost center, not an investment center, and thus may have less authority to act than if the department reported directly to the CEO. Therefore, the CFO needs to be engaged in HR best practices.   If the employee accused is a rainmaker or otherwise a formal or informal leader of the organization, that employee cannot be immune to action for inappropriate behavior. 

In 2015, researchers at the Harvard Business School calculated that “toxic workers” — those prone to be guilty of harmful behavior, such as sexual harassment — hurt a firm’s bottom line by at least $12,500 in turnover costs, even if they are considered star performers.  “Research demonstrates the toxic cost of keeping that ‘high-value’ person in place way outweighs the cost of getting rid of that person,” said Feldblum, the EEOC official.

Second, HR needs to ensure that the entire organization is trained not only on proper and improper behavior, including other forms of harassment and retaliation, but as to how the investigation process works.  Some pundits believe that the training is simply to protect the employer.  The truth is, yes, it does protect the employers in part, but it also brings into the open what is considered acceptable and appropriate behavior in order to protect employees.  Once the line is crossed by someone who took the training, HR has an important tool to discipline or terminate the offending party. The fear of the investigation needs to be brought to the open.  HR needs to explain that during the investigation they are gathering facts, not acting as judge and jury.  There are always two sides to a story, which is always open to interpretation.

Although many would like to blame HR for a culture of miscreant behavior, for the most part it is not true.  On the other hand, HR has to build bridges, so employees will not be afraid to step forward.  Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University and author of “The Asshole Survival Guide,” identifies companies where HR takes bullying and harassment seriously.  Baird’s Chairman Paul Purcell has instated a so-called “No Asshole” policy, and Netflix, which has a comprehensive guide regarding expectations of workplace culture, are two examples by Sutton of employers whose HR teams would act in an employee’s best interests. 

To ensure your leadership and all employees are educated on sexual harassment, ASE is offering its class “Harassment Prevention” on December 12th. We’ve added this additional December class in light of the recent news and rise in claims.  For more information or to register, click here.  Seating is limited so be sure to reserve seats early.  The next class is March 28th.

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