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What HR Needs to Do Now

The tide of revelations about sexual harassment at work has continued to go out, receding to expose an ugly landscape that has been there all along. I suspect that I’m not the only one who has found it shocking and yet also depressingly unsurprising.

I’ve been relieved to hear the voices rising from within HR, calling us to reflect on our role as a profession in the epidemic of sexual harassment, and urging us to do better. It’s certain that we must do better, but I worry that this doesn’t set the bar very high. The tales of HR complicity, or astonishing and willful ignorance if we’re exceedingly generous, are shameful. If even a small percentage of HR professionals are contributing to the pain and exploitation of employees, this should be seen as the crucial and foundational failing of Human Resources that it is.

It should be a moment of somber reflection for us; as individuals and as a profession, we must be unflinching in examining the outcomes we have contributed to, not just our intentions. But it would be a tragic missed opportunity if we were to stop there.

We must be careful not to confuse fulfilling our personal and professional accountability (to stand up in situations where employees are being mistreated, exploited or intimidated) as being sufficient and equivalent to actually prevent sexual harassment in our organizations. As demonstrated by the breadth of the revelations to date (which the stats suggest represent only the tip of the iceberg) this is a systemic problem. To address it we’ll need to take individual responsibility, and look beyond our individual actions to the system(s) like corporate power structures, that enable it to occur so frequently.

We need to seek to understand how these systems work against victims and against anyone who seeks to challenge the status quo. Not in order to excuse the actions of HR professionals who contributed to silencing victims or failed to expose the terrible incidents recently revealed, but as a means to educate ourselves about how HR might play a role in actually preventing sexual harassment going forward.

Keeping the conversation at the level of individual accountability and actions is not going to be enough to create the kind of change we need in organizations and society. Not when our organizations present structural barriers that limit HR’s ability to call powerful harassers to account, and incentivize containment over exposure.

“It’s not a case of whether individuals are more or less at fault than the whole sordid system. It’s both. It’s allowed to be both.” Laurie Penny

It Shouldn’t Take a Hero 

In the long wake of these recent revelations, the most common prescription I’m seeing for HR as a profession is a strong dose of individual courage, an urging to embrace our obligation to ‘speak truth to power’. I’m sure I’m not the only one drawn to this idealized version of HR, as fearless moral champion. And yet, it seems both impractical and terribly reckless to suggest that a heroic HR professional is a necessary bulwark to prevent those in power from sexually harassing their employees. This is where I get all ranty about people asking ‘where was HR?’ as though we’re leaving children alone with rabid grizzly bears.

Effective HR people must be willing and able to challenge those in power when there is questionable behavior, but that shouldn’t be a frequent requirement! If it is, then HR isn’t the problem, the rabid grizzly bear leader is, and even the most practiced and influential HR professional isn’t going to be able to change that person. (Obviously it is still entirely incumbent on them to report and/or expose such behavior, not clean up the mess or manage the fall-out).

Our Organizations Are Built for Self-Preservation

Speaking truth to power is the result of organization design, not what you tell people to do in an environment that punishes it.” Chris Worley

If it isn’t yet crystal clear, our orgs are set up not to hear about sexual harassment. Yes, we have policies and procedures and do training. And it doesn’t work. Estimates suggest that harassment is pervasive (4 in 10 women), and that up to 70% of women who are harassed do not report it.  When it is reported, a lengthy investigation can ensue, and regardless of the outcome, many victims will end up leaving the organization. We can’t prevent and address what we don’t see and don’t know, and it should be clear that an absence of sexual harassment complaints does not necessarily equate to an absence of sexual harassment. Some HR people will say “Victims should know that HR is here to help”, but it should be clear that as a profession we have not earned that trust.

Organizations aren’t built to protect harassers and abusers, but they are built to protect the status quo and existing power structures, which can sometimes lead to the same result. Assuming that the organizations we are working on, and in, are benevolent systems is a mistake we cannot afford to make.

HR as a Function is Structurally Ill-Equipped to Prevent and Address Sexual Harassment

Many of the stories shared in the last few months involve harassers who were senior leaders, or top performers who has the endorsement of the powerful in their organizations and industries. Where there was an HR function, they were accountable to those same leaders or people in power.

If HR ever was a function that had the influence to effectively challenge organizational orthodoxies and power, that time may be behind us. For as long as I’ve been in HR the profession has been maligned, encouraged to “find ways to say yes”, told to “be strategic” rather than a bureaucratic “compliance function”, and bombarded with articles about what the CEO “wants from HR and isn’t getting”.  The most sought after model has been one that makes HR people “business partners”. I wonder how a victim of harassment might interpret that title, what predictions she (or he) might make about the support she can expect from a “business partner”.

Have some experienced, intelligent, and brave HR practitioners navigated their organizations to do both? Absolutely (they’re my role models). But it’s hard to ‘get a seat at the table’ while loudly claiming our right to light the table on fire. Can we bet the safety of our employees and the reputation of our profession on the average HR person having the nuanced understanding and skills to walk this knife-edge? Definitely not. 

The Answer is Not More Training and Policy

We cannot see this simply as a matter of perfecting and more consistently administering the processes and procedures that have passed for ‘best practices’ when it comes to sexual harassment. These practices are based on shaky assumptions, have been eroded over time to be little more than liability reduction checkboxes, and are completely sanitized of any hint of the human suffering that they supposedly prevent.

Are these practices informed by what victims or vulnerable workers need and want? Of course not. Are they based on evidence about their efficacy? Nope. Do we seriously believe that an hour or two of lecture or eLearning will shift behavior based on lifelong, deeply help beliefs about gender and consent? I sincerely hope not. The research suggests it does not, and may in fact have the opposite effect.

Nor is the answer to point to ‘culture change’, which is as ambiguous an objective as one can set, and in many cases means that the organization is going to do very little with no idea of whether it will actually change anything.

What Will Work?

I have given this topic a lot of time and thought these last few months. I’m trying to absorb the research about organizational risk factors for sexual harassment, and what might actually work to address it. There are ideas out there, some of which are based on sound research. I’ve read about increasing women in leadership roles, bystander training, active participation of senior male leaders in redesigned training, identifying and supporting vulnerable groups of workers, measuring training impact, shifting HR to report to the board, anonymous complaint reporting, investigation processes designed with the victim in mind, attestation by board members or executives about the handling of sexual harassment complaints, ombudspersons, and more.

I agree that for HR, it has to start with each of us reflecting on our accountability and “picking a side” (as the great Melissa Nightingale said at DisruptHR Toronto this week). But we can’t stop there. This is a conversation we need to have as a profession and in our organizations, grounded in reality, not in theoreticals and “best practices’ that aren’t working.

What Next?

How can HR contribute to preventing workplace sexual harassment? I intend to spend time and energy in 2018 trying to figure it out, but I (obviously) can’t do that on my own. If this is a topic that interests you, or you know people doing related work, I would be thrilled to hear about it.

Read This Week:

Organizational Leaders as Behavioural Economists – Paul Thoresen and Koen Smets

Brilliant post, and the best thing I’ve read on culture in recent memory. I love this look at Schein through a behavioural economics lens:

“Through what they systematically pay attention to, leaders distinguish between what they find more important and what is less so. That, in turn, serves to form the habits that are the bedrock of the organization’s culture.

Take the time to make decisions that will still stand up once the crisis is over.”

10 Basic Components of Organization Development – Allon Shevat

If you are not familiar with Allon’s thought-provoking blog, let this be your introduction. I admire his brevity and his storytelling, informed by a long career in OD.

The act of organization involves the creation of anxiety, and organizations, in order to be successful, need to mitigate the anxiety. The anxiety is created by the friction which mutual dependence that organizing creates.. The aches and pains that the organization deals with are anxiety-rooted. If this anxiety is not mitigated, all activity of the players is inward focused.”

Crossroads – Ellen K Pao

Highly relevant to the topic of this week’s post is the focus of Pao’s article cautioning that the wave of sexual harassment revelations does not mean that those responsible are being held accountable:

“To forge inclusive workplaces, we must push for transformational change by asking the right questions until CEOs and boards accept accountability. The stories of discrimination and abuse are being told, but leaders are not taking responsibility for creating a culture to prevent inappropriate actions and punish violators in the future. History will repeat itself, I promise you, until all those responsible are held accountable.

We can jail perpetrators for their crimes, but until we hold to account those who hire, promote, and reward these perpetrators (even if they are “rock stars”), we will not have safe workplaces free from harassment, bias, and discrimination.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree with the gist of this article. Thinking in terms of Bowen systems theory, if HR is operating like the cops to prevent sexual harassment, then they are being tasked with over-functioning in the system, and the rest of the system is invited to under-function. Alignment on any issue or goal must begin at the top of the hierarchy and cascade downward. Responsibility must be spread evenly and effectively. Support functions such as HR can then have the conditions for providing effective support on difficult issues such as this. Harassment must be defined as clearly as possible, and then the CEO must be clean (no guarantee) and clear with their direct reports and the organization that it will not be tolerated and victims will be treated with respect.

    December 12, 2017

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