HR Can’t Solve Sexual Harassment When HR is Part of the Problem

HR Can’t Solve Sexual Harassment When HR is Part of the Problem

Jillian Medoff 29/01/2018 10
A few weeks ago, I met a woman (let’s call her Andrea) who doesn’t believe transgender people deserve special protections, either at her company or under the law. She made this clear during an industry conference on discrimination and diversity. The moderator had been explaining how many Fortune 500 firms were adopting policies on restroom usage with the goal of inclusivity, when Andrea suddenly interrupted her.

“I don’t believe transgenderism is a real thing,” Andrea asserted. She looked around the conference room, as if daring someone to defy her. “You’re born as one gender—a man or a woman—and that’s what you are.”

The air filled with palpable tension. Around me, people shifted in their seats. No one made eye contact. Although I was revved up and ready to pounce, I said nothing. Instead, like everyone else, I sat in an uncomfortable, cowardly silence.

Finally, the moderator spoke. “It’s not a question of belief. It’s a question of law. Transgender people are entitled to certain legal protections. In fact, 18 states and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly protect employees on the basis of gender identity. This means a transgender person has the legal right to use the men’s restroom if he identifies as a man or the woman’s restroom if she identifies as a woman.”

Andrea remained unconvinced. “What about my rights? I shouldn’t have to share a bathroom with a man if it makes me uncomfortable, regardless of what he considers himself. Period. End of story.”

Industry conferences bring together an assortment of professionals—corporate employees like Andrea, consultants like me, legal scholars, compliance officers, academics and other experts. This particular session was focused on sexual harassment, and included related issues including gender identity and restroom policies. Given the sensitive nature of these topics and our tumultuous climate, I was shocked to hear Andrea voice her beliefs aloud—beliefs that are regressive, bigoted, and self-serving. But I was even more shocked to find out that Andrea works in a human resources department. She, more than most people, should understand the meaning and importance of inclusion and fairness.

Listening to Andrea, I had a stunning realization: corporate human resource departments should not be required to carry the entire burden of sexual harassment training and all its myriad complexities—including setting and enforcing workplace policies—alone. To do so is unrealistic, unfair, and, ultimately, won’t resolve systemic issues or change deeply ingrained attitudes. Not only is the subject too vast but the stakes are too high. To effect true change within an organization requires buy-in and commitment to act from the top down as well as across disciplines. Everyone contributes because in the end everyone benefits.

Sadly, I doubt Andrea is the only HR professional that holds these kind of beliefs—nor is she the only professional to articulate them in public.

In my current profession—communications consulting—I design strategy and messaging around employee health and welfare benefits. So I come in contact with HR executives and senior leaders across a wide range of industries and demographics. The vast majority of my colleagues and clients are extremely well-informed on current events, progressive and forward-thinking and, when they speak, acutely aware of their audience. But over the years, I’ve met a few HR professionals who are more like Andrea than not—a little too bigoted, a little too regressive, and now, given today’s atmosphere, a little too vocal.

You could argue that, at fifty-something, Andrea is from a different generation, one that isn’t as enlightened as her younger, more diverse counterparts. You could argue that having worked at her current company for fifteen, maybe twenty years, she’s been sheltered from changes in hiring practices across the US corporate landscape. You could argue a lot of things. But while those arguments may provide context, an explanation and/or a rationale, her behavior is still wrong.

By working in a corporate HR department, Andrea represents her company’s values, ethics and philosophy; she’s a brand ambassador. Sure, as an American citizen, she’s entitled to her opinions, no matter how misguided and backward they may be. But these days, people who work in HR must be held to higher standards of awareness and sensitivity, and they must have a deeper understanding of what it means to be diverse, how it feels to be “other.” To my mind, this means Andrea, along with everyone else in HR, should keep her personal beliefs to herself. To do otherwise is not only bad for business; it also promotes bigotry and dissent within a company’s ranks.

While it’s true that HR gets a bad rap; it’s also true that this bad rap is often justified. As a discipline, HR was created during the height of unionization as a way to advocate for employees. Historically, an expense-driven, clerical function, HR departments (then called “Personnel”) attracted less ambitious, largely female staffers. While women continue to comprise a higher percentage of rank-and-file HR staffers (the number of women dwindle the higher up you get), HR has changed a lot over the years. Recognizing that employees are a company’s most important asset and a source of competitive advantage, many HR leaders changed their philosophy and practices. Instead of pure administration and operations, they began acting as strategic partners to the business. This meant aligning the goals of the department with the goals of the organization: increase revenue, reduce overhead, and stay out of court. Consequently, a shift occurred: the HR function, once an advocate for the employee, now had to be an equal advocate for the company. In other words, the HR department’s loyalties were divided, with HR staffers’ loyalties divided even further.

This shift is best illustrated in the questions that have been arising in the wake of sexual harassment revelations and the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. A lot of people—both inside and outside the corporate world—are wondering why, if HR knew about this predatory behavior, they didn’t take steps to protect the company’s employees. But in fact steps were taken—accusations were made, confessions were elicited, settlements were paid out and secrets were buried. So now the public isn’t asking why didn’t you protect your employees; they’re asking which employee were you protecting?

At this moment in time, how men and women behave in the workplace is under tremendous scrutiny. Everything is being examined, including the correct definition of inappropriate action and speech, as well as how, when and to whom it should be reported. Furthermore, employees’ trust in HR has eroded; people aren’t sure if HR will act—indeed, if they have the ability to act—in their best interests, particularly given how much personal information the department can access. I like to believe that HR will eventually experience another dramatic shift in philosophy and practices; one that will hopefully result in more clearly delineated policies and procedures, more transparent and objective reporting guidelines, and reasonable and enforceable consequences. Alternatively, if HR can’t find a way to advocate for employees and, simultaneously, drive revenue and protect the organization, hopefully senior leaders will adopt some type of third-party administrator to ensure that their staff has a confidential and impartial place to discuss highly sensitive issues.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t speak up when Andrea voiced her opinions; that instead, I sat quietly while the moderator dealt with her. The truth is, as a consultant, as an employee, as a human being, I can’t be silent anymore. If I want to work in an industry where people can feel comfortable, despite all our differences, then the onus is on me, as the more enlightened consultant, employee and human being to act as an agent of change.

The office is more than just a workplace. We may not be a family but we are certainly a community, and within any community the needs of the whole often supersede those of the individual. So we need to stop and ask ourselves: Who are we as an industry? What do we care about as a business? What do we stand for as individuals? How to we protect ourselves and our community?

The world is different now than it was even just a few months ago, certainly than it was a year ago. There is no longer room for intolerance, for prejudice, for injustice. Maybe it’s naïve of me to think this way but if I don’t, who will? We can’t un-learn what we’ve learned and un-know what we know. I may not be able to change Andrea’s beliefs, but I can certainly try. The time has come for me to speak up—you, too. The time has come for all of us to speak up, to speak out.


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  • Brenden Arris

    Interesting read, Human resource managers are dealing with multiple sexual harassment claims in their careers, but they are too cowards to whistle-blow any wrongdoing to keep their job.

  • Jesse Harding

    Problem is, how much will this all cost after firing top executives???

  • Samuel Wolfe

    Sexual harassment claims should be handled more effectively and efficiently........

  • Nial Russo

    We need a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind in the workplace

  • Frank Rawling

    HR cannot properly manage complaints if they are never reported.

  • David Pinat

    We should all speak up!! Enough is enough!!

  • Bianca Oliveira

    I am proud of all of the women who have came forward with their complaints

  • Emre Zileoglu

    The #Metoo movement is just the beginning

  • Nicholas Jones

    Am I the only one who finds this depressing?

  • Thanos Sofroniou

    In reply to: Nicholas Jones

    No you are not the only one

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Jillian Medoff

Society Guru

Jillian is a renowned American novelist as well as a senior management consultant at the Segal Group. She is an award-winning corporate writer with a record of success in developing strategic communications programs designed to help organisations achieve large-scale change. She is the author of four novels; her newest novel, THIS COULD HURT (HarperCollins), offers a satiric look at the corporate world. She's also the author of three other novels, two of which were national bestsellers. Her first novel, HUNGER POINT, was published in 1997, and became the basis for an original Lifetime movie of the same name, which first aired in 2003. She holds an MFA from NYU and a BA from Barnard College/Columbia University.

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