Sexual Harassment: HR Needs Help

Picture this: The company you work for is flourishing. The newest addition to the executive team, John, the CFO, has a great vision for the company and is an easygoing, thoughtful guy to boot. Or so you thought. This past week, three of John’s direct reports, all women, have stated that John has made numerous sexually explicit comments to them. How would you proceed?

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Option one: You decide not to inform company leadership about the harassment complaints and instead file the grievances away and move on. As a result, the company continues to grow, but so do the complaints against John. Now there are numerous vacancies from women who have left the company. Most of your time is spent searching for replacements and fielding more sexual-harassment complaints.

Option two: You raise these complaints up the chain of command, get John fired and protect the accusers. The executives were not thrilled about losing John, but you promised to personally find a better candidate. Turns out, there was a natural fit for the CFO role already working within the company. She was promoted, and the company thrived. Reports of sexual harassment have significantly decreased, and you can focus your talents on scaling the business upward.

Though both scenarios are over simplified, they paint the picture of today’s HR dilemma.

According to an article published yesterday by the New York Times, HR professionals are stuck in limbo when it comes to addressing sexual harassment. An HR department’s client is the company; however, the department is also responsible for fielding employee complaints.

As we’ve seen from all the latest sexual-harassment scandals, HR tends to side with the company instead of the employee. This decision makes it difficult for women to feel comfortable reporting harassment.

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Research indicates that one in three women experience sexual harassment although a staggering 71 percent never report it.

“The lack of trust manifests itself as a self-perpetuating quandary: Women are hesitant to approach human resources departments and those departments cite the absence of complaints as proof of a respectful workplace,” write Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell, authors of the New York Times piece.

As we know, HR personnel aren’t cold, heartless creatures; many of them want to help employees who bring harassment complaints against powerful colleagues. But they face internal conflicts as well.

According to Scheiber and Cresswell: “While many human resources officials would undoubtedly prefer to respond more vigorously to harassment complaints, the fact that they work for the company places significant limits on them–even down to the most basic human interactions. For example, human resources officials must carefully parse their words when speaking with accuser for fear that their remarks could later be introduced as evidence in court.”

For example, they write, something as simple as an HR official saying, “I’m sorry” could be used against the company in a court case. And if an HR official does bring the complaint to the executives or board of directors and they wave it off, the reporting official likely walks away with a target on his or her back.

Scheiber and Creswell write, “When top executives ignore a human resources official’s recommendation about how to end discrimination or harassment, the official typically has only one form of recourse: leave the company. And even that may not save an HR official from a chief executive’s wrath.”

Is it fair to place all the blame on HR? No, because we’re all human. Decisions we make have the capability to negatively impact more than just ourselves. However, HR — the people who are trained in how to handle harassment, discrimination and other negative aspects of the workforce — should have much more room at the executive table to make appropriate decisions without fear of retaliation.

Allowing HR to be proactive about sexual harassment will not only improve company morale, but it will help the bottom line. Businesses stand to lose approximately $22,500 a year in lost productivity for each employee impacted by harassment.

Chelsea R. Willness, lead author of a study, titled A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Workplace Sexual Harassment, says, “Loss of productivity is one of the most commonly cited organizational costs associated with SH [sexual harassment] …  It is not only the individual’s productivity that suffers. Rather, research evidence shows that the productivity of the entire work group may be negatively affected by SH … It reduces organizational commitment and increases the likelihood of turnover, the cost of which can easily be extreme.”

Danielle King
Danielle Westermann Kinghttp://
Danielle Westermann King is a former staff writer for HRE.