When the problem is at the top, should you even talk to HR?

sexual harassment
Bianca Healey


written on May 18, 2017

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.

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6 thoughts on “When the problem is at the top, should you even talk to HR?

  1. I’m a HR Manager, I recently witnessed a manager verbally abuse a staff member leaving them visually shaken. I stated I couldn’t be objective to investigate the bullying claim raised. As a result I was asked to leave as I didn’t side with the company

    1. Max,
      I am in the same boat as you Max, my days are numbered in my current post because I am far too ethical for the companies liking, I am of the belief that everyone should be treated equally, if it means I will lose my job, so be it.

    2. Max, I understand it’s probably not this simple but I don’t even see why a bullying claim needed to be investigated. You, as an HR Manager, observed inappropriate workplace behaviour. Your obligation was to address it immediately. With the Company’s best interests at heart because you don’t want them to disengage their staff or expose the organisation to risk. It’s also your role to educate and coach Managers in more effective ways to gain the desired results from people. In that case surely you would challenge the behaviour immediatley (but respectfully to both parties) and privately speak with the Manager about the issues he or she was having with the person, what might be a better way to approach the matter, the risks involved in the approach taken and encourage the Manager to approach the staff member to apologise for the behaviour and work through the issue (offering support). Yes, I get the realities involved here, you may need to speak with the Manager’s Line Manager or your own so they understand the issues involved (or to cover yourself). It’s not about hanging the Manager – I’ve seen the gamut from pysopathic bullies to ineffective management practices – it’s about coaching and supporting them (and your broader team) to a better outcome for your business and your people. They’re pretty much always aligned. If a Manager’s behaviours continue to be inappropriate it will cause risk to a business and, if done correctly, they will appreciate HRs efforts to mitigate risk with thorough investigations that include sound recommendations (and yes, sometimes these recommendations will conclude that an individual is unsuitable to hold a role).

  2. Carlson’s comments are reflective of a mindset that needs to be changed with respect to the role of HR. People continue to misunderstand the role of HR. I am fed up with this perpetually erroneous belief that employees should report any form of misconduct (whether it is criminal behaviour, employees turning up late for work, safety breaches, not following procedures, harassment, bullying, sexual harassment, whatever) to the HR Department. WRONG! People also seem to think it is the job of HR to investigate incidents. WRONG AGAIN!! The person to whom any breach of discipline, misconduct, or official misconduct is to be reported is the employee’s supervisor/manager. The role of HR is to ensure that due process is followed; ensure appropriate support has been provided to both parties, and that natural justice is afforded to both parties; and that reporting and investigative procedures are followed. Now, where the CEO is the alleged offender, the matter should be reported to the COO (or whoever is the number 2) and/or that person reporting it directly to the board. The alleged behaviour is irrelevant. As a profession we need to be challenging this mindset. I also completely disagree with a theme though this article which is being used to push a biased Leftist agenda, with comments such as ‘society continues to punish women who speak truth to power,’ and the calls to brainwash our children (this would be similar to the Safe Schools rubbish the Left is trying to push into our schools), and capriciously hiring women and giving them a high ranking job merely because of their gender. It is hypocritical to deny a person a position on merit because of some voodoo quota concocted by Leftist minority groups. This is not an issue confined to gender. When one looks at the issue of bullying in the workplace, many men are victims. Furthermore, many females are offenders.

    1. This article was spot on. When a more powerful perpetrator is the harasser, no one in a lower ranking position will win, not the victim, nor the messanger (HR). I have seen these scenarios play out time and time again in my 20 year HR career. The only way forward in my view is to have the matter adjudicated in an independent completely confidential government funded tribunal where identities can be protected and the right decision made.

  3. Politics is a powerful force for those that wield the power, however in my experience there are some things that HR can do to mitigate this. The best is to use independent external investigators to review more serious allegations, and provide the results of the investigation (usually a report) to the complainant and the respondent. At the end of the day despite the presence of politics and clear policies (or lack of them), culture makes or breaks anything and it is HR’s job (even if we don’t want it to be) to try to get the senior leadership of an organization to own it including the consequences of a (toxic) culture. I have left a couple of organizations because the culture is not one I want to be part of (bullying/harassment accepted based on power) and there appeared to be no appetite to improve it. I suppose this shows that HR can’t really protect employees but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to make things better.

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