Sexual Harassment-HR Steps Up


Respect for each other in a culture is always the most effective way to approach the issue of sexual harassment. Consider today’s (and Today’s) termination of Matt Lauer after complaints, investigation and conclusion of inappropriate behavior at work at NBC. The reaction of his co-hosts spoke volumes-they were clearly in shock, not realizing that their colleague could have been one of the mighty who are being felled by accusations of sexual harassment. One wonders where NBC’s conclusion that “this was not an isolated incident” came from. Had they been sitting on other allegations and investigation results that they chose not to act on in the past? We may never know.

Often sexual harassment involves something less extreme than the examples that have come to light lately, with Harvey Weinstein being accused of physically assaulting women and Louis C.K. forcing women to witness his masturbating in front of them. Everyone can agree that these behaviors are disgusting, despicable, and would easily subject an employee to immediate dismissal. What more often happens is that people are demeaned, put down or bullied with sexual comments or sexually inappropriate behaviors, and it can be a power play on the part of others in the workplace. It’s a way of saying, you can’t be yourself here, you are not welcome here, you’re on a lower level than me. Engaging in and tolerating those behaviors (and worse, having them come from the top) are things that are less easy to train for. You can clearly tell someone that unwanted touching is off limits, and that they can’t threaten someone’s job if that person refuses to sleep with them. That’s a pretty clear line. But the trick is how we decide to embrace and convey the idea that if you step on other people’s backs to get ahead, and that includes saying or doing things that are counter to their dignity as human beings, we aren’t going to reward you by promoting you and giving you more money. And if you are already in a position of power and you do these things, we’re going to take the hit even if you’re making us lots of money-we’re going to remove you from our company and make a strong statement that your behavior isn’t going to be tolerated.

Sometimes HR responds that we are in a difficult situation. We have dual roles, after all; we are there to protect the company from legal liability as well as helping employees when they encounter difficulties at work, and we serve as the investigator of these complaints. It is our job to find the facts, and come up with a recommendation about what to do next. Employment attorneys will tell the company what the risks are in any given situation, but they will not recommend what action to take. If HR finds evidence that an employee is harassing someone at work, and recommends termination, but company leadership doesn’t agree, then HR has a choice. We can go along with what leadership says, and find some other recommendation, or after making our strongest case for termination and insisting that leadership follow through, if no action is taken, we can exit the organization. We don’t get to decide what happens, because that is up to what we usually call, “the business.” The business gets to decide what to do, and then we get to decide whether we want to be part of an organization that does what they did. So, as much as I empathize with internal HR professionals when they say, “it wasn’t my choice” what consequences to deliver at the end of a sexual harassment investigation, I don’t buy it. We all have a choice every day to go to work and be part of whatever company is our employer. If their values are not consistent with ours, HR, and leadership isn’t open to listening, learning and growing, we must find ourselves another employer.

Recently, one of my clients terminated an employee on my recommendation. The behavior at issue consisted of verbal comments. The coworkers around this former employee were concerned about him losing his job and told me they not worried that he would assault them. I reminded them that although they were strong people who were confident in themselves and their ability to respond to this behavior, it was absolutely counter to the organization’s values to tolerate it. I also reminded them of these two things:

1.       We don’t know how any future team members might react to behavior like this

2.       We don’t know who else might behave like this in the future

We can’t make exceptions because someone is otherwise well-liked, or because he or she is a great performer. We have to make clear on the front end what’s expected, be frank and open in talking about it when people do not behave according to those expectations, and draw clear lines and let people learn the hard way when they refuse to abide by these norms at work. Earlier this fall, I had sat across a desk face to face with this former employee and told him exactly what he had been heard saying at work, and let him know that it was disrespectful, unprofessional and would not be tolerated. I told him if it happened again he would be terminated. And to my client’s credit, they followed through with that termination when the time came.

In order for HR to step up and handle sexual harassment, there are a few main points we must begin with:                                            

·       Bullying, manipulative, power-play behavior often goes along with sexual harassment. If we address the former, we will diminish the risk of the latter.

·       Being open about addressing sexual harassment begins with interactive training during the orientation and onboarding process (I am still working on developing this training-it’s difficult to meet that goal because those who embrace the training are the ones who don’t need it as much).

·       When the time comes that an investigation substantiates that an employee has behaved in a way that’s counter to the company’s values and/or has violated policy, then action must be swift and clear.

When I come across a client that is having trouble with projecting and maintaining cultural values around respect and open communication, I typically will recommend one of my organizational development colleagues come in and facilitate a communication session with leadership. Part of this may be personality profiling, 360-degree feedback and other tools to help them open up to one another and identify risks, attitudes and working styles that are interfering with their ability to lead effectively in an atmosphere where gender diversity and other kinds of diversity in their teams can thrive and deliver success in their organization. This also is an effective way to combat the false narrative that men and women can’t work successfully together, with mutual respect where they are valued for the results they deliver and the talents they bring to the organization.

I'm hoping, like many of my HR colleagues are, that the current climate of openness and accountability, as well as support for people who have been harassed continues, so that future men and women who have less power than those in the media and Hollywood will feel some of the power too and feel supported enough to come forward. We will do whatever is in our power to create and maintain cultures of respect in our organizations that allow that to happen. 

Photo by ahyakal on / CC BY