Voices in the Profession |

Sexual Harassment

An Open Communication to HR Professionals and Other Leaders


TO: Human Resources Professionals

CC: Other Leaders, C-Suite

SUBJECT: Sexual Harassment

How about all those sexual harassment headlines? The accused include actors, producers, chief executives, U.S. senators and even U.S. presidents. That’s quite a cross-section of individuals, and it seems like a new accusation pops up every day. You’re feeling the heat, of course. Who wouldn’t when you read headlines like, “Fear and panic in the HR department as sexual harassment allegations multiply,” “When it comes to sexual harassment claims, whose side is HR really on?” and “Sexual harassment cases show the ineffectiveness of going to HR”? These articles say things such as HR “will help you, as long as your interests don’t run counter to the interest of the company, because you’re not paying their salary, the company is” (from business consultant Cynthia Shapiro), and “I have not met an HR person who doesn’t want to do the right thing for employees … That said, they’re in the same power structure that the employee alleging harassment is in” (Kate Bischoff, human resources compliance consultant). Sounds to me like there are people out there who think you aren’t up to the job, you’re lost and don’t know what to do or, perhaps the worst scenario, you’re nothing more than a shill for management with little regard for the employee’s plight.

Many of us have seen firsthand how devastating sexual harassment can be, first and foremost for the victim, but also to the organization.

Then there are the chat boards and social media. For example, one interesting LinkedIn post (#HarassmentWork), which includes comments from LinkedIn members and results of a survey of U.S. workers, repeats the accusation that you are there to protect the corporation to the detriment of the employee. On the plus side, LinkedIn members provided many positive and supportive comments, too. Some of them, while acknowledging that you certainly represent the company, also pointed out that you have an equal partnership with the employee. So, in the process of doing your job, if you are successful and enlightened, you’ll balance the interests of both partners to achieve the best possible outcome for all involved. Perhaps more important, workers surveyed said they believe you are their savior when it comes to the battle against sexual harassment! That’s exciting news and a welcome vote of confidence. But how can you free yourself from your paralyzing “fear and panic” so you can begin to make a difference?

Training is one important solution mentioned by the LinkedIn survey. HR has a crucial role in training. Might I suggest that you take a fresh look at how you and your company approach that role? You should ensure training is up to date and addresses today’s issues. It needs to be easy to understand and accessible. And you should get away from the whole idea that sexual harassment training is a periodic compliance event. Instead, you should find ways for it to be at the forefront of employees’ minds every day — a part of the fabric of the company.

Another topic of immediate concern is HR’s effectiveness in dealing with specific sexual harassment cases. Many of us have seen firsthand how devastating sexual harassment can be, first and foremost for the victim, but also to the organization. How many of us have seen a victim devastated by sexual harassment, in tears, broken? The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Code states that as “human resource professionals, we are ethically responsible for promoting and fostering fairness and justice for all employees and their organizations.” To live up to the principle, you need to re-examine — and possibly re-engineer — how you handle these cases. Social media and the speed of communication has complicated things. As Brian Kropp, a CEB human resources consultant states, “The playbook for HR, when it comes to sexual harassment, is a 25- to 30-year-old playbook … It’s too slow for addressing these issues as they occur now.” You need to remake a fast, decisive and fair process for the 21st century. Otherwise, you risk becoming ineffective, unnecessary and irrelevant. If that happens, companies will find other solutions to address the sexual harassment problem.

I think part of the problem is that HR tends to approach sexual harassment, as well as other challenges, purely as a compliance and risk management issue.

We can certainly discuss other specific issues and solutions, but I think part of the problem is that HR tends to approach sexual harassment, as well as other challenges, purely as a compliance and risk management issue. Consider looking at it from an ethical point of view.

At its core, sexual harassment is unethical. If an organization is rife with sexual harassment issues and doesn’t take every reasonable step to address and remedy them, the organization also is unethical. You have a critical part in fostering an ethical culture in an organization and you are fundamental to the success or failure of an organization’s ethical program. In fact, the Core Principle for Ethical Leadership promulgated by SHRM is that “HR professionals are expected to exhibit individual leadership as a role model for maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct.” Not only that, the code expects HR professionals to “question pending individual and group actions when necessary to ensure that decisions are ethical and are implemented in an ethical manner.” Finally, HR professionals are expected to “champion the development of others as ethical leaders in the profession and in organizations.” Pretty heavy responsibilities, but more than ever you need to live up to them. Ultimately, I don’t believe you can curb sexual harassment through rules alone. The solution must have ethical underpinnings.

I think a good starting point is to examine the ethics program of an organization and make sure it is solid and effective. This is a long-term undertaking and isn’t easy, but the results will pay you and your company dividends. In my ethics class, I teach that the key ingredients to an ethical organization are:

  • Fostering and sustaining an ethical tone that comes from the top
  • Communicating a clear standard and code of conduct and ethics
  • Treating employees well
  • Rewarding positive acts and punishing violations
  • Maintaining a comprehensive communication and training strategy.

Any organization that lacks one or more of these ingredients can’t be ethical. Look no further than the organizations in the headlines for sexual harassment issues. I think you’ll find them lacking in at least one of these key ingredients, perhaps many of them. As the code implies, a strong HR function has a critical role in implementing and sustaining these ingredients, working closely with executives, ethics committees, workers and others. And among the pillars of an ethical organization, first and foremost, is tone at the top. Leaders (HR, executives and C-suite) must send the right message, communicate it regularly and consistently, and do what they say they’re going to do. They must stand behind the pledge to reward good behavior and punish bad and make sure it happens. Getting this tone right will lead to a transformation in the organization. This is one of the things I emphasize repeatedly to my ethics students so that, as they build their careers and start new companies, they implement and sustain the right tone and message. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”

Leaders must send the right message, communicate it regularly and consistently, and do what they say they’re going to do.

We also spend a good deal of time on the code of conduct and ethics in my ethics classes. Too often, the code is viewed as a compliance exercise, a box to be checked. Perhaps a more productive way to look at it is as the ideal — the standard for ethical behavior of a company. The company should strive to meet or exceed that ideal every day, not just once a year when each employee signs that he or she acknowledges reading and receiving the policy. The company’s leaders should commit themselves to upholding this code every day. (There’s that tone at the top again.) The company code of conduct parallels the employee’s personal code of conduct. In a perfect world, the codes of employees and employers agree with each other and both employees and employers share a commitment to upholding these codes. It is internal to the DNA of the company and the employee, not a fancy coat to be donned for special occasions and removed thereafter.

In my last ethics class each quarter, I play a video by Maya Angelou. In this video, she eloquently urges us to “just do right.” That’s pretty simple, but remembering those three words empowers you and gives you the potential to create profound change. Besides, you’ve seen the cost of just doing wrong: damaged employees, crippling lawsuits and a devastating blow to the corporate brand and image. So, why not try an innovative approach? Talk to your manager, your COO and any other leader who will listen. Get the ball rolling! There is no single answer, no simple remedy, but you can start by committing to “just do right” and asking others to do the same. Who’s with me?

Warm regards,

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