One of the most searing responses to the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick came from a former HR leader.
The hubbub around a toxic culture at Uber – in particular, the revelations of sexism and harassment from a former engineer at the company, Susan Fowler, led to the eventual resignation last week of the founder, Travis Kalanick.
The fall of one of the world’s best known CEOs received saturation news coverage as you might expect, with commentators queuing up to offer analysis or just bathe in the schadenfreude of Uber’s affliction.
The news incited one particular contribution from a former HR leader turned consultant in the US named Laurie Ruettimann that caught our attention here at HRM. Ruettimann has worked for corporate giants such as Pfizer and Monsanto, so it’s fair to assume she knows what she’s talking about. Writing on Vox news, she laid into how HR is found badly wanting, not just at Uber but in many companies, at handling cases of sexual harassment.
Before looking at Ruettimann’s analysis of the problems with HR, it’s worth underlining that this isn’t just a US problem. The Human Rights Commission in Australia shows that the number of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination complaints filed is rising – and the damages awarded to women who win their cases has also risen sharply. In 2015, for example, a female road construction worker in Victoria was awarded $1.3million.
Peter Wilson, chairman at Australian HR Institute, says that the figures point to a systemic problem.
“There are a lot of people like Susan Fowler who stand up and are to be applauded. It is a problem that requires zero tolerance but it is one that has obviously increased, not diminished, because women are spending more time at senior levels. As women’s participation rates in executive roles have gone up, they are exposed to more senior men, many of whom display alpha male behaviours and sexist attitudes.”
As a committed HR practitioner, Ruettimann says that while few people are shocked to hear that sexism and harassment still happen in the modern work environment. “Even fewer are shocked to hear that HR did nothing about it. The lack of outrage at HR, in particular, breaks my heart. We should know better. There should be consequences.”
She articulates the central contradiction under which many people in HR work when she says: “Part of me is angry, and part of me feels sorry for my former friends and colleagues who work in the trenches of HR. How do you help organisations attract and retain great talent while also doing your job and protecting the company from lawsuits when something goes horribly wrong? The answer is that you can’t.”
Ruettimann goes on to make a connection between shrinking union membership in the US, a pattern replicated in Australia, and the rise of HR.
“We once had unions as mediators and guardians of the workforce. They were concerned about issues such as fair pay, health insurance, and safety compliance.”
But yearning for a bygone era isn’t the solution, says Peter Wilson who adds that many unions have been just as bad when it comes to sexist attitudes and behaviours.
“We won’t have a restoration in union membership numbers any time soon. Current employees want bespoke solutions not whole-of-industry solutions. We have to get equivalent standards of protection for employees in the world of work that exists now and in the future, rather than where it has come from.”
And that means a heightened need for better more courageous HR, he says. “It requires HR to coach and caution and blow the whistle to stamp out this kind of behaviour when they see it.”
Ruettimann agrees and ends with a rallying cry for solidarity to help change culture from within.
“HR needs to work harder to protect those employees from hostile work environments. But I also think people can look to the past for lessons on how to rally around one another and create supportive environments at work. Change the system that weighs you down.”
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