I saw this post about HR being bad at handling sexual harassment claims. Laurie Reuttiman (the author) is actually someone I respect as an HR thought leader. After reading the article though, my response is: You’re Wrong About HR.
Susan Fowler IS a human resource nightmare for HR departments . . . that are not doing their job. The entire story Susan shared is disturbing on every level. The sexual harassment and the hostile work environment created at Uber is unacceptable. Her leadership team and HR should have stopped it.
If HR is not investigating sexual harassment claims that’s neglect of duty. If they know about issues with a leader they need to investigate. Performance of the accused should not be a factor. If you are a CEO and you do not have HR professionals trained on the correct way to handle an investigation, go find them now. If you find that a leader, or anyone in your company is harassing another employee, fire them. Sexual harassment is against the law. Any cool stuff they might build for you isn’t worth it. Your entire company culture will suffer.
I am a 17 year veteran of HR and I still work as a practitioner. In every company I have worked for, when an employee comes forward with a claim, there is a clear process for the investigation. An HR investigation includes meeting with the accuser to understand the situation. HR will also talk to witnesses and ask for documentation, among other things. This is usually done in partnership with the legal team. When the employee goes to HR, HR may ask if there were witnesses or emails/texts to support the claim. This isn’t them ignoring what is going on, this is them building a case. I have no idea what the structure of Uber’s HR team was during the time that Susan Fowler was being ignored. Point blank, they were not doing their job, which is unfortunate. Uber was in a major growth mode, so they may have not had the right people in HR to handle this type of accusation. This is not to excuse it, this is trying to understand how it occurred.
Laurie is right that part of HR’s job is to protect the company. It is to protect the company from lawsuits from any employee. HR department should not ignore a complaint of sexual harassment. If they do they open themselves up to lawsuits from the accuser, as well as, any future employees who may come forward. Protecting the company means ensuring an environment that is free from harassment.
“I believe that human resources is designed to fail women . . .” Reuttiman says. No, actually we are not. We keep our employees and leaders engaged by fostering a great workplace for everyone. Does this always work, no. Do we have a great reason to keep our employees and leaders engaged and safe, yes. Study after study shows that engaged employees drive better results. Better results make for happy shareholders.
To encourage employees to avoid HR or say they will not help someone who is being sexually harassed is maddening. To paint such a broad brush stroke isn’t right. If you have a solid HR department, they have created a culture that is safe and inclusive for all employees. If they haven’t, I do agree that you should leave.
Another part of my job is to create an environment where the best and the brightest can thrive. This includes making them feel safe and sharing that they can come to HR if they need help and support for any issue. There are so many HR practitioners doing great work driving employee engagement. Engaged employees drive better bottom line results. If the best and brightest are not supportive of an inclusive culture, they need to go.
A third piece to the role of HR is influencer. Laurie’s right in that I cannot make the final call about firing someone. That is up to the leadership team. Leaders are busy with the work of leading the team. They appreciate when they have a supportive HR team to help when issues like this occur. We can come in without the bias of day-to-day knowledge of the accuser and accused. If I am doing my job, the leader will understand the consequences of not following my recommendation. If I have built the credibility of a fair partner, they will hear me. I need to be an unbiased voice for the leadership team on what steps to take.
What To Do
Let’s say you work at a company where an employee who is a known harasser stays because he or she is indispensable. You may want to think about what other issues are going on if one person is that important. No one at an organization should have that much influence, even the CEO. It’s not good business.
For all the employees out there who are afraid to talk to their HR department, please don’t hold back. We are here to help. If you don’t get a resolution, then find an attorney.
For all HR practitioners and consultants out there, do better. Be better. The employees need your support and that support will help the company in the long run.
Oh, one final note. To all the predators who belittle, harass, or make sexual innuendos. You are on notice. This behavior is not okay. Women and those who have been silent in the past are speaking up. Stop now.
Photo Credit: David Simcoe