With the myriad of high-profile workplace sexual harassment cases cropping up in the media, AHRI’s CEO Lyn Goodear FAHRI GAICD, examines HR’s role in the matter.
The allegations against Craig McLachlan last month are a reminder of the rash of workplace sexual harassment revelations in the media and entertainment industry worldwide over the past year or more, and which appear to follow a pattern.
An employee (usually female) makes an allegation which is followed by similar allegations against the same man by other women. The accused denies everything and questions the complainants’ motives. In many cases the women claim to have made complaints to HR at the time which were treated lightly and not acted on. Invariably, the organisation declares that it treats workplace allegations with the utmost seriousness.
Not surprisingly, cases like these result in employees forming the cynical view that executives and big revenue earners are a protected species, and there is no point in complaining to HR if they breach company harassment policies. That view was given air in a recent New York Times article under the headline ‘Sexual Harassment Cases Show the Ineffectiveness of Going to H.R.’
The writers depart from the usual line by expressing an understanding of the ‘thankless bind’ in which HR departments find themselves. HR practitioners, they say, are responsible for fielding employee complaints, but also work for the company that could be liable for those complaints.
Pledge your allegiance to the entire organisation
HR practitioners are therefore caught in an invidious conflict of interest that could see their careers threatened if they look too hard when investigating certain people.
I respectfully suggest that the Times writers are generous to a fault in their assessment of HR’s responsibility in these cases. HR practitioners are no more in a conflict of interest situation than chief financial officers who refuse to execute instructions in breach of their professional accounting codes of conduct, or chief operations officers who refuse to fabricate tests on their products in order to gain a competitive advantage.
If this last example prompts thoughts of Volkswagen, it becomes strikingly apparent that no one gains when people in positions of responsibility pander to the bosses rather than act as professional caretakers of the organisation. The CFO, the COO, and the CHRO might all report to the chief executive, but they each owe their primary allegiance to the organisation, as does the CEO.
What might have converted into bumper short-term bonuses for VW managers who put subservience to their bosses above allegiance to their professional standards, has turned into multi-billion-dollar penalties to the company, as well as incalculable loss of reputation and damage to the brand. Some executives have been sent to prison, and more are likely to follow.
Raise the bar higher
The answer isn’t to excuse the inexcusable but to demand professionals operate skilfully in accordance with standards set within their professions by certifying bodies. Those standards are there to protect the organisation but also the wider community, which relies on the skills and expertise of the professions.
This doesn’t deny the fact that when HR practitioners stand up for fairness and natural justice on behalf of employees, they may well be standing on precarious ground with respect to their own careers.
It’s not enough to say to them: “Do the right thing!” Certifying professional bodies, such as AHRI, need to say: “Act in accordance with your professional standards, having undertaken the required study to know what those standards are, and why they exist”.
In Australia that means knowing the law and knowing how to apply it in workplaces. It also means exercising people-related skills such as bringing an objective and dispassionate mind to an investigation, and demonstrating that you understand the business and care for the people who conduct that business. That’s what respectable HR professionals do.
Chief human resource officers who find themselves reporting to CEOs who demand that their senior executives put allegiance to them above allegiance to the organisation need to exercise the full range of their professional skills, including the capacity to be persuasive and, when required, to be brave.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Fairfax publications on 10 January with the heading ‘Staff must feel safe when taking allegations to human resources’. It also appeared in the February edition of HRM magazine.