With all of the recent news stories about male executives being fired or stepping down from their high-powered positions due to sexual harassment complaints, one has to wonder what was the role of human resources in the process.
As a HR professional with over 20 years of experience, I could no longer remain silent on this issue. I can attest to the fact I have managed more than one sexual harassment claim in my career. I can also attest to the fact that there are times when human resources is challenged with how to effectively and efficiently handle these claims when they cross our desk. Most organizations have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind in the workplace, but HR cannot properly manage complaints if they are never reported. Unfortunately, more times than not, these incidences go unreported due to fear — fear of being fired, retaliated against, considered a troublemaker, embarrassed or not taken seriously.
On behalf of my HR colleagues, I want to take a pause and personally apologize to ANY employee who has ever felt their company’s HR representative failed them when they came forward to file a harassment complaint of any kind. I’m also proud of all of the women who have recently come forward with their complaints, regardless of any consequences they may have feared. I have experienced my own #metoo in the workplace on more than one occasion and shrugged it off, did not report it and went about my day. So I can empathize with the experiences of the women coming forward in recent months. I, too, carried my own set of fears at the time.
Human resources professionals are the protectors of the company culture and the purveyors of the corporate conscious. Each employee’s life cycle begins and ends in the HR department. If we are doing a good job overseeing the culture and consciousness of the organization, ideally, we should not have employees in our office filing complaints during their employment with the company.
It is our duty to take every complaint seriously, regardless of the source. Let’s face it, we have probably encountered one or two employees in our career who may have had a habit of visiting the HR department to discuss their displeasure about matters outside of our immediate area of responsibility (i.e., office temperature or type of toilet tissue in the restroom). However, our role in those rare situations is to either redirect the employee to the appropriate department or help them strategize a reasonable solution. As Stephen Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind,” so consider the experience you want the employee to have by the time they leave your office. Put yourself on the other side of your desk. People just want to feel like they are being heard. If HR professionals can manage that successfully, in my experience, most complaints are resolved rather quickly.
So, what can we do going forward as HR professionals and women in the workplace?
First and foremost, there needs to be an increase in diversity in positions of power and influence in all industries. I hope what we are experiencing now is a shift in that paradigm with the recent removal of several leaders, with probably more to come in the near future. HR professionals are in a great position to lead the conversations around diversity, inclusion and harassment of all types in the workplace. The efforts require going above and beyond the standard annual training, which has no real accountability for sustained learning. Honest and open dialogue between male and female workers, mediated by HR professionals, should occur immediately, without concerns of being classified as “too sensitive” or “locker room talk.”
Let’s take this a bit further. Here are some simple action steps everyone, but especially men in the workplace, can take to continue to help move the dial on sexual harassment:
• Ask the women you care about in your life if they have ever encountered workplace harassment. Listen for signs of how the experience may have impacted their performance, self-esteem or career path, and ask for recommendations on how you can do better in your workplace.
• Speak up! If you hear a male counterpart make a disrespectful, disparaging or insensitive comment about a female co-worker, address it in the moment. Do not laugh, join in on the joke, nod your head in agreement or remain silent. Silence equates to agreement. Tell your co-worker the comment is not appropriate and he needs to reconsider how he views women in the workplace.
• Be a champion. If you have knowledge a female employee is being treated unfairly, such as parity in compensation, promotion opportunities or having her voice heard in team meetings, speak to someone who can make a difference. Use your voice and power of influence whenever possible, without concern for how you may be perceived by your male counterparts.
• Lastly, just do the right thing. It’s really that simple.
As women, we have been programmed since childhood to make excuses for certain behavior from males, and it has carried over into the workplace between women and men. Fortunately, women are now standing together and expressing that this juvenile behavior is no longer acceptable, and they will not operate out of fear any longer. I commend my fellow HR colleagues who are on the forefront of this much-needed change, and I commend my fellow women for coming together and standing up to this unfair treatment in the workplace. I look forward to seeing more women and diverse leaders rise up.
Originally written for Forbes.