By Michelle V. Rafter
Apr. 3, 2018
Human resources is working overtime to address accusations that practitioners have been on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement.
The wide-scale makeover of processes, policies and the profession’s image comes in the wake of revelations of widespread sexual harassment at U.S. employers of every size and in virtually every field, from entertainment to academia to government. They include incidents or alleged incidents at high-profile startups such as ride-hailing company Uber, women’s hygiene products maker Thinx, retail jewelry chain Signet Jewelers and casino operator Wynn Enterprises.
One of the most well-known cases is The Weinstein Co., where allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape against co-owner and one-time Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein kicked off the #MeToo movement and led the entertainment firm to the brink of bankruptcy.
Report after report portrays weak HR functions that helped create a breeding ground for harassment and other toxic workplace behaviors. Victims accuse HR of failing to adequately deal with complaints of improper or illegal behavior, provide proper reporting channels or take other actions as warranted. In the most egregious cases, employees, potential employees or independent contractors who report harassment or abuse — the vast majority of whom are women — claim HR representatives aided or covered for the harassers.
In some cases involving startups, there was no HR person or department for victims to turn to, or the function was added only after problems were made public. In other cases, alleged victims or their representatives have linked HR problems related to harassment to personnel who had been promoted into HR roles without adequate experience, credentials or training.
Even as more new accusations come to light on a regular basis, HR departments are stepping up their responses by increasing sexual harassment training. They are hiring outside contractors to perform workplace culture audits, provide independent whistleblower services and set up other types of HR tech to support better harassment reporting.
“There’s been a lot of self-reflection about what we have been doing and what more we could be doing,” said Elizabeth Bille, general counsel and corporate secretary of Society for Human Resource Management, the industry’s largest professional group. “There’s momentum and increased awareness and sensitivity that more may need to be done in this area.”
Industry influencers are using the moment to advocate for elevating the profession. They want companies that don’t already have an HR manager in the C-suite to boost the position to that level. They want companies that already have chief HR officers to make sure those executives report directly to the president or chief executive officer.
While that might be good advice for larger companies, it may not apply to tens of thousands of U.S. HR professionals who, according to SHRM, work as “departments of one,” predominately at smaller companies.
Ultimately, HR can only do so much. A company’s owner or upper management sets the tone for what is or is not acceptable workplace behavior. Although companies like Uber, Thinx, Wynn and The Weinstein Co. have removed CEOs who employees claim were harassers or created work environments that allowed harassment to happen, others have yet to take such assertive measures.
Some practitioners are suggesting that HR professionals should be prepared to quit rather than stay at companies with CEOs or boards that are unwilling to make the changes necessary to rein in questionable behavior or to take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place.
“My hope is that all HR folk know where they’re comfortable ethically and then stick to it even if that means leaving a job,” said Kate Bischoff, a Minneapolis employment lawyer, during a recent #HRHour Twitter chat.
A Threefold Increase in Requests for Sexual Harassment Training
Next to suspending or firing harassers, the #MeToo movement’s biggest impact on HR has been bumping up sexual harassment trainings.
Kelly Marinelli, an employment lawyer turned HR consultant, said requests for trainings have increased threefold since early 2017. Marinelli, president of the Boulder, Colorado, SHRM chapter, presents everything from 90-minute webinars to half-day on-site sessions for companies, law firms and other organizations. “People want something they can do right now to make it better, and that’s a first step,” she said.
Training that Marinelli offers goes beyond identifying and addressing sexual harassment. It also educates companies on actions they can take to create a workplace where employees feel comfortable because bullying and power plays aren’t tolerated. “Sexual harassment is about power, not sex,” she said.
A workplace harassment resource page on SHRM’s website has gotten “millions of views” since it was launched in early November, according to Kate Kennedy, an organization spokeswoman. The resource page launched only weeks after initial reports of Weinstein’s alleged harassment and abuse, which victims claim goes back decades and includes cover-ups by company staff.
Sexual harassment-related calls to a separate SHRM Knowledge Center also are higher today than they were at the same time in 2017, Kennedy said.
In recent months, SHRM has increased the number of training sessions it sponsors, and is advising state legislatures on sexual harassment policies, said Bille.
“There’s recognition that as a baseline matter, HR professionals need to go back to their anti-harassment and retaliation policies and make sure they’re strong enough,” she said. “Does the policy fully address all the behaviors we’re seeking to prevent that constitute sexual harassment? Do we have enough reporting mechanisms so individuals have not just one but several people they could go to to report concerns? Do we have an investigation procedure in place that’s ready to be used in the case of sexual harassment?”
Women who claim to have been harassed have characterized HR as only caring about protecting corporate interests. It’s not a notion that sits well with many HR practitioners who see themselves as champions of employees, said Anne Tomkinson, an HR generalist and board member of SHRM’s Washington, D.C., chapter.
Long-time HR executives such as Tomkinson are using social media and private online forums to support each other. Methods for handling the issue and making employees feel supported are popular topics on a private Slack messenger channel frequented by HR veterans. “We collaborate a ton on all these things, and it comes down to helping people feel good about their work and doing the best work they can,” said Marinelli.
Companies are hiring law firms and other outside services to audit reporting procedures or to set up whistleblower hotlines, following the likes of Uber, which launched an internal sexual harassment audit following allegations of misogyny and harassment chronicled by a former employee in a now well-known February 2017 blog post. Uber’s audit, conducted by an employment law firm and headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, resulted in 20 employees being fired, including many senior executives, and reprimands for 40 other employees. Since then, organizations such as the New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera also have hired law firms to conduct audits. Other lawyers have started posting information about audit services they provide on their websites.
HR tech vendors are capitalizing on the situation by offering cloud-based harassment training and related services. One is Vantage Point, a startup created by a two-time survivor of sexual violence. Vantage Point sells virtual reality-based sexual harassment training videos.
HR Departments of One Can Lead to Knowledge Vacuums
A number of high-profile sexual harassment cases cited HR personnel who lacked education, experience, training or credentials for the job.
Especially at small companies and startups, it’s common for a co-founder or owner to handle payroll, benefits and hiring until the work becomes too much to handle and they pass it off to someone who’s proficient at administrative tasks. But knowing how to run payroll doesn’t mean knowing how to handle a sexual harassment complaint, Tomkinson said.
SHRM estimates that about 55,000 of its 290,000 members work as HR departments of one, with sole responsibility for personnel matters, including providing harassment training.
For the majority of the 10-plus years Tomkinson has been in HR she has been one of those one-person HR departments at a variety of small businesses. Tomkinson holds SHRM certifications and a master’s degree in management. But many people who are moved into HR jobs at small companies don’t have previous experience or training and might not be aware of resources available for guidance and support, she said. Oftentimes they’re working in isolation and making their best guess.
“A lot of what feels like common sense isn’t best practices,” she said.
As an example, she said employees might come to HR with a problem and ask that the conversation be confidential or that no action be taken. If it’s a difference of opinion with a co-worker, Tomkinson said she might listen and offer counsel if they ask for it. “But if it strays into something that sounds like it could be harassment, I say I can appreciate that you want it to stay confidential, but I am required to do some sort of investigation.”
The nature of the allegation drives the type of investigation. “There’s a difference between the president of the company pressuring someone for sex if they want to get a promotion, and someone who says a co-worker is hitting on them and they don’t like it,” Tomkinson said.
‘HR Can Only Go So Far’
All the training, internal audits and other compliance fixes won’t work if upper management doesn’t live and breathe them.
Many larger companies that have come under scrutiny had formal HR departments with sexual harassment policies and training and still weren’t able to avoid these problems, said Beth Steinberg, chief people officer at cloud-based workforce app company Zenefits.
“The root of the issue is often the leadership team,” she said. “Are they engaged in these kinds of activities themselves? Do they encourage proactively addressing issues or make positive changes when issues come to light? If not, HR can only go so far.”
The personnel problems that tripped up Zenefits several years ago didn’t include sexual harassment allegations. But the company had a frat-party atmosphere led by its co-founder and former chief executive officer that included employees having sex in stairwells and doing shots after closing sales.
It also was fined by multiple state regulators for letting unlicensed employees sell insurance policies. In the past two years, Zenefits parted ways with the CEO and pivoted away from benefits to selling cloud-based HR tech software. The reorganization included hiring Steinberg, an HR heavy hitter who has advised numerous startups on people issues.
In late 2014, a Zenefits board member invited Steinberg to discuss creating a chief people officer role at the company and the possibility of taking on the role. But “there wasn’t an alignment” with top management over the value such a role could bring, and she passed, Steinberg said. That changed under current CEO Jay Fulcher, she said.
Zenefits previously had a CHRO, but when Steinberg came onboard in August 2017, it was as the chief people officer reporting directly to Fulcher, and she thinks there’s a big difference. “It signals the importance of this role to the company,” she said. “If the person leading people strategy is less valued than a technical leader or another leader, it says a lot.”
When corporate ethics and values don’t line up with what an individual believes, people need to ready to act.
Michael Rasmussen, a compliance consultant in Waterford, Wisconsin, left a former employer a decade ago after the organization invited a senior executive at an adult entertainment company to deliver a keynote speech at one of the company’s conferences. “I thought this was a slap in the face to the women that worked in the company and were our clients. I protested and it was the foundational reason I left,” Rasmussen wrote in a recent blog post.
He’s not alone in urging HR practitioners to act on their convictions. HR leaders must commit to what they think is right, said Vivian Maza, chief people officer at Ultimate Software. Maza advocated for women employees during a panel at an HR technology conference last fall.
“As HR professionals, you have to feel it and fight for it every day to do the right thing for employees,” she said. “If [your job] doesn’t align with what your philosophy is or what your gut is telling you, you’re in the wrong place.”
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