From the Front Lines in HR: Combatting Sexual Harassment

As the news over the course of the last year reminds us, a war continues to be waged in the workplace. 

Many articles have been written and studies undertaken which explain the very sad state in which we find ourselves in 2017 – toxic organizational cultures, legal systems which enable predators to continue to work and repeatedly silence victims via non-disclosure agreements, significant pay gaps, historical power dynamics between men and women, lack of female representation at the executive and board levels, and the list goes on. 

The numerous accounts of sexual harassment involving men in power across entertainment, media, technology and government validate the fact that organizations in every sector need a more effective means of addressing and stopping egregious and illegal behavior versus enabling continued patterns of sexual abuse.

Where is Human Resources in all of this?

Isn’t their role to police and to protect employees? This has been a source of interesting debate, given the head of HR usually reports to the CEO who may be the source of the harassment or may be the individual simply unwilling to do anything about it.

Frankly, while a senior leadership team is ultimately responsible for ensuring a culture of accountability exists for all employees, the role of HR is to hold senior management accountable. 

Can this really happen?

As a Human Resources leader, I would say unequivocally “yes,” however workplace dynamics make this more a complicated question to respond to. 

Unless you’ve either been an accuser or the accused, it is difficult to know exactly how organizations address claims of sexual harassment and what happens to those involved once the situation concludes. What follows is a real-life example from the trenches of how a sexual harassment claim was handled, who won, who lost and what Human Resources owned. All names, locations and other identifying details have been changed in order to protect the innocent and the guilty. 

During the 90’s, an HR manager, Courtney, began work on the West Coast in a unionized setting providing HR support for plant and office staff replacing a much older and long-serving male HR leader. Courtney was in her 20’s and was experienced working in corporate and industrial locations. Like other organizations, she reported to the head of the facility along with a dotted line to Corporate HR. The number of women who worked at the facility, not surprisingly, could be counted on one hand – Courtney, 3 in the office and 1 union-represented operations trainee.  Her name was Brenda.

The first week on the job, Courtney received a visit from Brenda who wanted to talk in person. Brenda, through tears, proceeded to bravely and coherently tell her story. 

Brenda had been working at the plant for about 9 months and was directly managed and trained by an experienced Operator, Diego. Throughout her training, Diego had been sexually assaulting her on and off the premises. The details Brenda shared were extremely disturbing and graphic. The situation was further complicated by the fact that she and her partner (she was a lesbian and in a committed relationship) and their child were renting a house on Diego’s property. Diego and his family lived next door to Brenda and her family. Given the work and personal ties, Brenda was trapped. 

She was extremely uncomfortable going to the former head of HR (for reasons which were revealed later) plus Diego was a long-serving employee at the facility with over 20 years of service and was a former union official. Furthermore, several of Diego’s family members worked at the plant in the Operations department. 

Courtney conducted an extremely thorough investigation – she interviewed all parties who would have had any knowledge of the relationship and interactions of the 2 employees, consulted with Legal throughout the process and quickly determined that Diego needed to be terminated immediately. Not surprisingly, much of the decision rested on the credibility of the 2 individuals involved; Diego clearly had challenges keeping his story consistent and believable. The Plant Manager at the facility was brought into the investigation early, kept apprised and ultimately was in agreement with the decision to terminate. 

The business agent from the union, who ironically represented both Diego and Brenda in the bargaining unit, was brought in and the disciplinary meeting was held with all parties present. The investigation process and findings were shared along with the decision to terminate. The union grieved the company’s decision all the way through arbitration fighting for Diego to get his job back but ultimately lost. In addition, Courtney wanted to ensure that Diego was not eligible to collect unemployment insurance from the state and also won the unemployment hearing given the evidence presented. 

So, was justice served? Did Brenda continue on with her life? Did HR hold the company accountable to do the right thing? Did this situation change what was “acceptable” behavior at that particular workplace? 

Surprisingly, Brenda decided to stay on and complete her operations training. She really wanted to become certified and was already well on her way. Many of the employees were outwardly supportive of her for coming forward while a handful of the operators remained committed to Diego’s version of the events. However, once the investigation was over and Courtney clocked in almost 10 exhausting months on the job, she learned a number of disturbing facts regarding other male leaders at the facility.

First, Courtney discovered that the prior head of HR had been sleeping with his secretary, who was now Courtney's secretary, for many years on the premises. Courtney also discovered that the Plant Manager was sleeping with a female associate in finance who reported directly into his chain of command. There was a clear pattern of men in power who were taking advantage of women who were subordinate to them. The senior-most leader at the facility was clearly setting the tone and the company chose to look the other way.

So, what did Courtney do?

She left after giving the standard 2-weeks notice. Courtney accepted a slightly lower-paying job with a lot more responsibility, lost her company’s full reimbursement of her graduate degree tuition but joined a company with plenty more women and reported directly to a woman.

What can we learn from Courtney and Brenda’s experience? Is their story still relevant today? And, what position must HR take in the on-going battle? 

·     First, Human Resources plays a critical role at the individual level ensuring employees have a safe place to go and at the corporate level in holding all leaders accountable for dong the right thing legally and morally. Recent events further illustrate the importance HR plays in this arena.

·     Having more women at the top matters. Brenda would not have come forward otherwise and her ending would not have been as pleasant and quick without Courtney. This fact is further borne out in recent studies regarding the impact more women at the top have on organizations they lead.

·     Leaders don’t always lead.  We know especially from the last year that men in power, founders and CEO’s have thrown decency (and the law) by the wayside in order to further their own personal desires. That means organizations must have multiple ways in which laws can be enforced and outrageous behaviors checked.

·     Women have the power to stay or walk. Brenda decided to stay and fight to complete her training once she was vindicated. On the other hand, Courtney felt completely compromised given her senior leader's behavior and chose to walk. It’s an individual choice. However, leaving one's employment has real economic and societal costs which need to be recognized and minimized.

·     It’s not about the training. Do leaders really need to be told not to proposition and force themselves on subordinates or other women in general? It’s about zero tolerance regardless of one’s position, level or contribution to the business. Frankly, companies are now learning that the negative publicity and brand-damaging behavior associated with protecting harassers outweigh the economic costs of silencing their victims. 

·     Finally, not much has changed in the last 20 years. Brenda’s experience in a unionized facility 20 years ago sounds a lot like the stories we are reading in the headlines today. While the jobs, industries, and educational levels might be different, the stories and situations are one and the same.

Our country is in the midst of turmoil on so many fronts which have divided us across political, economic, and cultural lines. However, the war on sexual harassment should be the one war we Americans wage from the same side.

Karyn DetjeComment