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An HR Crisis: Harassment at Work

One way I gauge the degree to which the world is getting to me is how much my throat hurts. I’m an incurable jaw clencher and after a few days of upper and lower mandible warfare the tension spreads down the front of my neck until it feels like I’ve been strenuously holding in a scream, which sometimes I think I have been.

Reading the accounts of the many brave women coming forward to report that they experienced sexual harassment and mistreatment from Harvey Weinstein is both freshly devastating and oppressively familiar. We’ve been here. A lot.

Of course, it’s never just the heart-wrenching reports. The usual bullshit responses from many in the media and the ignorance-brigade on social channels remind us how humans can be just awful. I’m not really sure how to adjust my macros to fuel sustained high-intensity outrage and disappointment, so I’ve just been eating a lot more cheese and hoping that’ll keep my strength up.

Over the course of the week I’ve read:

  • Far too many men starting comments denouncing Weinstein’s actions with “As a father of two daughters…” as if it has apparently only recently occurred to them, because they now have a personally relevant point of reference, that half of humanity deserves basic rights
  • To stop sexual harassment in the workplace we should eliminate any informality and alcohol at work events (apparently so many men are incapable of socializing with others without assaulting them that we should call that shit off entirely)
  • That we should take steps to make it more normal for men and women to meet one-on-one in our organizations, this in response to some men who say that these scandals have left them ‘spooked’ that a woman will accuse them and ruin their careers (the irony that we should apparently accommodate their fear of being victimized rather than focus on actual victims did not seem apparent to the writer).
  • And of course, that women need to speak up when this happens (never mind the high likelihood of retaliation or the prevalence on non-disclosure agreements intended to protect organizations from scandals like this one). And not go to meetings alone with men. And dress modestly. And probably a bunch of other bullshit that I thankfully overlooked.

As a woman (with no daughters), it makes me despair.


As an HR professional, the feeling is similar.

A few months ago I gave a DisruptHR talk titled ‘Scandals and Sociopaths: Is HR the Answer?’. I made the case that when people behave badly in organizations that asking “Where was HR?” is a question that lets those people off the hook; that making HR the org police for jerks and sociopaths sets the bar way too low for everyone else who should also be expected to call out their peers and co-workers when they see them treat others inhumanely.

I still strongly believe that to be true, that is when ‘Where was HR?” is used to deflect blame from those responsible. However, there are deeply troubling situations where it seems that employees who were being harassed either didn’t feel they could go to HR, or much, much worse, did and were ignored, undermined and re-victimized.

This was reportedly the case for at least some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, as well as situations at Uber, Fox News, and Jian Ghomeshi at the CBC. Bad HR apples? I wish I could believe that.

I’m haunted by a comment that Bob Sutton made when I saw him speak about assholes in the workplace last week: that when someone agrees to (explicitly or implicitly) manage the fall-out from someone’s bad behavior that they are enabling that behavior and that person.

Is HR as a profession enabling this behaviour?

Are we part of org systems which we’re incapable of calling to account?

Are we unintentionally contributing to power structures that make abuse of vulnerable employees possible?

Does our profession essentially function as compliance ‘window dressing’ (drafting harassment policies and training) for organizations without being equipped or empowered to intervene until the risk to the organization is higher than the risk to the individual(s)?

Is it only really possible for HR to put the interests of the individual above the interests of the organization if we’re granted permission by the organization, or we’re prepared to attack the system (organization) from the outside ourselves?

Does it take scandal, and all the pain and suffering that led there, for organizations to undertake a meaningful examination of their culture and the employees it makes vulnerable?

If you work in HR, have you ever discussed with your team, org leadership, or employees the tendency of people to not report harassment and considered what might be done to identify barriers to reporting in your org?

If you work in HR, have you ever talked with your team about the ’employee experience’ of a person who reports sexual harassment? Like what it might feel like for the employee in that moment, and therefore how we should respond as HR people?


What, if anything, can we do about this? I want to have answers, but I only have these questions and lots more. I was going to wrap up by apologizing for the heavy read this week, but this week was heavy, and I think we should feel that weight and examine its meaning.  Thanks for reading.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

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