A few months ago, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber described her “…very strange year…” by exposing the rampant, blatant sexual harassment she encountered on her very first day on a new team, perpetrated by her new boss. It was so egregious, I had a hard time believing that anything like that still existed in America’s corporations.
Boy have I been wrong.
Since that time, there has been a parade of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against extremely powerful men by many different women. We have continuing revelations out of Fox News, Sterling Jewelers, the California legislature and Hollywood. These allegations tell us many people must “conspire” to allow the culture to persist, regardless of the organization or industry. The greater the power, the bigger the conspiracy. The richer the prize, the harder it is to expose the culture of harassment or abuse.
I cringe when the news anchors and pundits invariably say, “….and HR did nothing…”
I believe that HR professionals must stand up for those being harassed or abused, but we sometimes forget that HR is caught in the same “powerless web” as everyone else. If you want to be accepted, promoted, trusted by the CEO, it is darn hard to expose his foibles in the workplace. HR professionals have families, mortgages and bills. Few of us can afford to put our jobs at risk.
Or can we afford not to?
I know first-hand how difficult it is to act against an executive accused of sexual harassment. I have been involved in numerous investigations in my 30+ year career where the executive truly did do the things of which he was accused. In each case, I reported the outcome of the investigation to the senior leaders with the authority to discipline or terminate him. In several cases, the accused was terminated. In most, however, the senior leaders interpreted the facts as “inconclusive”, or simply did not believe the complainant. This was especially true if the complaining party had performance issues or had been painted as a trouble-maker by the accused manager before the complaint was filed. (Yes, this is a real example.)
In interpreting facts as “inconclusive,” or “he said/she said,” the accused is protected. Maybe he’s given a “stern warning” to watch what he does, but short of a first-hand witness to the actions described by the complainant, it is hard sometimes to determine who is telling the greater truth. We have encountered false accusations of inappropriate conduct on occasion, so HR must take pains to be objective. HR professionals are paid by the company to do their jobs, and protecting the company’s reputation is important.
But! NO company’s or executive’s reputation trumps doing the right thing and taking the right action when harassment, bullying or other bad behavior is pervasive.
I believe that an HR professional who looks the other way tarnishes his or her own reputation, and damages hers or his future career potential elsewhere.
HR professionals have protection when they do the right thing. There are whistleblower laws and an HR professional who feels at risk can engage an attorney for legal advice. But we need courageous HR professionals in our companies. We need those who can be trusted to act with integrity and do the right thing, even if it feels risky.
It takes everyone looking the other way to continue a toxic culture such as the one Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein created. No one said or did anything about the harassment. The women did not. The men who knew about it did not. The price was too steep. No one was courageous until recently to name and identify what happened. More allegations about others in Hollywood (and business) are coming out daily, and it will likely continue for some time. Each case, whether involving women or men as the object of the harassment, bears the same hallmarks – disproportionate power and the powerful harass the powerless without limits.
So, to my HR colleagues, if you know something, DO SOMETHING. Be courageous. It can be risky, but you CAN act to protect others and yourself. And you will be able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning.
If you do not stand in the breach, who will?
Patti Perkins is the owner of Calyx-Weaver & Associates, a workplace management consulting company in Eagle. She has over 30 years of management and HR experience in several different industries and the public sector.