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#metoo & HR

A series of shocking revelations across various industries has pulled back the veil on sexual harassment in the workplace and given rise to the #metoo movement in many countries around the world. As I read various news accounts of the harrowing circumstances that many women have had to endure, I was struck by one common thread: how often HR was portrayed as complicit, passive or obstructive when employees sought their help.

This was evident in the case of Susan Fowler, the Uber engineer whose personal blog post exposed Uber’s toxic workplace culture. The New York Times states that Fowler went to HR and, “after she reported those claims to the human resources department, they were ignored.” Another example is former Google engineer Loretta Lee.  In February 2018, Lee sued Google for sexual harassment and a number of other grievances. In her claim, it was stated that “Google’s human resources department pressured Lee during a series of meetings to make a formal complaint about the incident, she says. But she was frightened that a complaint would only generate retaliation from her coworkers, … Lee says she finally relented and made a complaint, which Google then failed to investigate, the lawsuit states.”

These are just two high-profile examples, but there are many more.  Every time I read about these cases, I am pained: not only because of the emotional trauma experienced by these women, but because of the portrayal of HR. HR professionals are not perfect. However, I refuse to believe that any HR professional would knowingly or willingly disregard a sexual harassment complaint. The reality is that many HR professionals are untrained and unskilled in how to deal with sexual harassment cases. Things can often go wrong in that very first meeting between a complainant and HR. Confidentiality may inadvertently be broken, thus damaging the employee’s trust and increasing the company’s liability. This must change.

Another real challenge is that many HR professionals face a conflict between balancing the priorities of their employer and the priorities of the employees they represent. It is possible that some companies, managers (and yes, even HR) are unethical. Some HR professionals may make wrong choices based on improper training, misguided intentions, or putting the interests of the company or management above those of the employee.

In my experience, HR (alongside Legal and Employee Relations) does investigate sexual harassment claims in a thorough, professional and confidential manner. But this investigation may not be transparent to the complainant for a variety of reasons. For example, due to the rights of individual employees to their own privacy and to a fair process, HR may not be able to provide a detailed, step-by-step account to the complainant of the investigation. I know that this may feel like a black box to the complainant, but it is not malicious. It is an attempt to be fair to all parties.

As HR professionals, what can we do to ensure that we don’t find ourselves unprepared and on the back foot if an employee raises a sexual harassment claim? Here are a few simple steps.

Have procedures in place

Although it is not required in Hong Kong, your company should have written procedures and policies in place for dealing with employee grievances and investigations, including sexual harassment. The process will be in black and white with little room for interpretation or confusion. The appeals process should also be clearly defined.

Get training

Many HR professionals can progress through their entire careers without dealing with a sexual harassment claim in the workplace. We can assume that HR professionals know exactly what to do in these situations, but many of them are ill-equipped.  There are numerous companies that offer sexual harassment training. Training should be offered for both HR and line managers. The small upfront investment in training can pay off tenfold if a claim is raised in the future.

Find an expert

If you are working as a solo HR head or in a small team, you may not have access to the experience and resources you need to handle a sexual harassment claim. Even in a larger organization, sexual harassment training may not be a focus. If you are unsure, find someone with expertise. Sexual harassment claims are not an area where you can just “wing it” and hope you don’t make a mistake. The risks to the company and the employee are simply too high. Hire an external consultant or law firm to guide you through what you need to do and to act as an unbiased third party.

One of the positive things that has come out of the #metoo movement is the focus on cultural change across many different industries and organizations. This would not be happening without the brave women who chose to speak up and speak out – whether to their boss, their husband or wife, or to their HR partner.

I’ve worked with some exceptional HR professionals who try their best to do right by the employees and organizations for which they work. Many of them agonize over these decisions and cases. I’m not trying to make excuses. I am trying to defend a group of professionals who don’t deserve the bad press they’ve received around this issue. We will not get it right every time. But rest assured that we are trying.

Need help navigating a sexual harassment claim or putting policies in place at your organization? Contact RC HR Consulting to see how we can help.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.

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