The Role of HR in Smashing Harassment

Please read my latest post to The SHRM Blog on the importance of HR in stopping harassment.

I have been thinking a lot about Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile cases of serial sexual harassment. These cases are extraordinarily disturbing, to say the very least.

There are some who have suggested that the Weinstein nightmare is simply a Hollywood problem, dismissing it as nothing more than the age old “Hollywood casting couch.”  How patently wrong they are.

Hollywood needs to clean up its act, but it is not just Hollywood. What happens in Hollywood is but a symptom of a much broader societal problem.

Predatory sexual behavior by men with power exists in every industry. Of course, women can engage in harassment, too, but I am not aware of any women who have exploited their power to harass men or women in the way Weinstein and other men have done.

This is not to suggest that all men with power abuse it in such a heinous way. But leaders in general and men in particular must do more than avoid what is wrong, and behavior is wrong long before it rises to the level of what has been reported in the high-profile cases. By their words and their actions, leaders must make the organization’s anti-harassment policy a true reflection of corporate culture.

HR plays a critical role in this battle. Publicly, HR professionals must stand up to harassment and implement holistic programs to prevent it from occurring. But not all preventive efforts will be successful.

When bad behavior happens, there must be consequences. More quietly, HR has and will continue to play a key role in helping to remove from workplaces those who abuse their power and assault the dignity of others.

On social media, I have seen some ask whether HR is protecting the employer or its employees. The answer is both.

HR must protect employees and, in doing so, it protects the business from legal and reputational risk. There is a reason that the “H” in HR stands for human.

Recent events do not create a new issue for HR to tackle. The best HR professionals are already all over it.

But HR has an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to ask itself: What more can be done? The HR professionals with whom I speak are asking questions along the lines of:

  • How do we ensure that leaders do not simply pay for but attend anti-harassment training and make clear their support for it — again, by their words and actions?
  • What is the best way to assess whether there may be a culture of complicity and, if there are complicit people with power, how do we best incent them to do what is right and stand up to what is wrong?
  • Knowing that many women who feel harassed do not bring claims out of fear, how can we create complaint procedures and environments in which employees do not fear retaliation if they raise or support concerns?
  • How do leaders respond “in the moment” to unacceptable conduct without engaging in paternalistic rescuing or re-victimization?
  • Other than thanking an employee for bringing any concerns to their attention, what should leaders say (or not say) when an employee has the courage to open up to them?
  • How can we respect the strong desire of many victims of harassment to keep the matter as confidential as possible but still send a strong message that the company will not brook unacceptable conduct, severe or subtle?
  • What are some promising practices to remind employees throughout the year of the reporting mechanisms, assurances of non-retaliation and harassing behaviors that must be avoided, recognizing that, even in the best cultures, training once a year may not be enough?

These and other questions require careful thought. Our employees deserve nothing less.

But one point must be crystal clear in every organization: The more power you have, the more is expected of you. Those who abuse their power must be met with prompt and proportionate corrective action.

In some cases, this will mean terminating the rainmaker. But if you ignore, or worse yet protect, him, a jury can and will take away all the rain. Plus, values matter.

While I am horrified by recent events, I have some hope by the response I see in the HR community. But HR cannot do it alone; it does not “own” civility.

Every leader must join the battle. It is one of the moral imperatives of our time.

Segal was appointed to and served as a member of the EEOC’s Select Task Force on Harassment. However, Segal speaks for neither the EEOC nor the taskforce.            

THIS BLOG SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, AS PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATIONS OR AS ESTABLISHING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.