When a workplace culture condones sexual harassment from the top down, can HR really protect employees?
After filing a sexual harassment case that resulted in the ousting of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in July last year (and a settlement of $20 million), former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson has cautioned against reporting workplace sexual harassment to HR in an address at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women dinner in New York.
Carlson has become one of the country’s most public spokespeople about fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, and she used the event to question whether HR can be trusted to protect women who report harassment to them.
Her comments draw into sharp relief the uneasy truce between HR’s responsibility to the company – and to employees. Embedded in this; the difficulty for workplaces to develop structures to protect victims when society continues to punish women who speak truth to power.
What can HR do; what should HR do?
In an op-ed published by the New York Times last November Carlson laid out her recommendations for workplaces to improve the way victims of sexual harassment are treated.
Sexual harassment training needs to be reassessed, she says – and set up with a standard by which its effectiveness can be assessed. She also sounds the call for societal change, from improving how we educate our children, to bringing more men on-board; to hire women and place them in positions of power.
Companies should also not be allowed to force employees to sign contracts that include arbitration clauses under which sexual harassment claims can be resolved only in a secret proceeding. Women who are unaware that other women have come forward are less likely to speak up themselves, she says. “Secrecy silences women and leaves harassers free from accountability.”
However the fact remains that most women choose to settle sexual harassment cases privately (or are forced in Carlson’s case and the case of many other women at Fox who signed contracts with arbitration clauses), rather than speak out, for fear of the consequences – the publicity, stigma and legal repercussions – will have on their career.
Carlson questions whether human resources departments are the right places for victims to go to lodge a complaint, asking “can women feel safe telling their stories to HR employees who are hired by the same company executives who may be implicated in the harassment?”
This speaks to the issue of what, if anything, HR is able to do in this situation.
In January, AHRI Chairman Peter Wilson wrote here that “HR’s allegiance is to the company, not the boss” in relation to recent cases at media organisation Seven West and at NewsCorp’s The Herald Sun.
Wilson reiterates what all HR professionals know; that if formal HR complaints are not passed on or are not communicated promptly, ethical problems arise with respect to HR’s allegiance: “Good HR practice involves CHROs being sufficiently professional to exercise the courage and skill required to state the facts as they see them,” he writes. “ In some cases, that may mean by-passing conflicted senior management and reporting directly to the board.”
However, while failure to respect an employee’s right to fair treatment “invites workplace cynicism” at the very least, and a negative impact on engagement and productivity and company culture at worst, many of the AHRI members who commented on the article noted the unenviable position in which this structure places HR professionals.
The biggest issue with the system is the secrecy, Carlson says. And HR professionals who have found themselves on the wrong side of a dispute might agree with her sentiment that “after all is said and done, the predator [can] keep working and you’re gone.”
“The current system means HR professionals are in a lose-lose situation when dealing with these types of work problems,” writes one commenter on Peter Wilson’s article.
Many recounted situations in which their actions had resulted in them losing their jobs and others noted that as there are minimal protections for HR professionals, they are “damned if they do and compromised if they don’t.”
Photo sourced from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base website, made public domain by the U.S Airforce.