By Kwame Salter
News of widespread sexual abuse/harassment of women has hit the proverbial fan; it seems that no industry, organization or political party is exempt. While reprehensible, sexual harassment is not surprising. The objectification of women is evident in every culture on the planet Earth. Sexism, excuse the pun, is the "mother of all -isms." Sexism is "as American as apple pie." Men hitting on women is nothing new. Men using their position and power to coerce women into bed is also nothing new.
What is new is that women in droves are now taking advantage of this moment (a teachable moment, for sure) to expose the heretofore powerful and untouchable men — who assume that women are "game" that they can hunt and harass at their leisure or whim. While chasing and badgering women use to be considered "Game on!" and a uniquely male perk, such behavior is quickly becoming taboo and career ending. The workplace has and remains the arena where sexual contact and conquest has enjoyed its longest run. Thus, the role of Human Resources is being brought into sharper relief. In other words, HR has been outed!
The HR function must play two different roles, as both the agent of the company and the advocate of the employee. As the agent of the company, HR's job is to represent the company's vision, mission, goals, and decisions. Similarly, HR must protect employee rights while guaranteeing a workplace that is safe physically, psychologically and emotionally. Sexual harassment violates all three rules of safety — physical, psychological, and emotional.
Given HR's charter as the employee's advocate, why is sexual harassment still so rampant in our companies and organizations? The answer is simple: HR is too close to the centers of power. The career trajectory of an HR professional too often depends on how well they ingratiate themselves to the powers that run the organization. Is the HR professional man or woman enough to take on an influential person rumored to be a sexual predator? Or does the HR representative see protecting an alleged harasser as part of their agent role versus investigating a sexual harassment claim?
Regrettably, too many in HR are conflicted when it comes to taking on the "big boys" in the organization. The conflict is between doing the right thing for the complaining employee and their own career trajectory. They don't want to alienate someone who could make or break their career. Thus, they end up soft-peddling the complaint or casting doubt in the minds of the complainant about what happened. They might suggest that what happened was misinterpreted by the woman or that the offending behavior was unintentional. The HR representative might even suggest that the event or situation was the result of something she did or wore. Even more duplicitous, the HR person might pretend to take the complaint seriously and then give a friendly warning to the alleged perpetrator to cover his tracks or come up with a credible defense. All in all, the nexus of a professional relationship and friendship can undermine a serious and objective investigation of the complaint. Even more disturbing to the woman is the real possibility that the burden of proof will lie with her and not the alleged harasser. Getting a reputation for complaining about a powerful man can be a career derailer.
As an advocate for employees, the HR professional should adhere to a consistent protocol when told about an alleged harassment claim. Early on, establish to all that you intend to be an "honest broker" during and after the conclusion of the investigation. Let all know that after the investigation is concluded, you will let "the chips fall where they may."
Investigating sexual harassment claims against powerful men is a dicey proposition. Always do the right thing. Still, watch your back.
Kwame S. Salter, an Oak Park resident, is a retired HR senior vice president.
Answer Book 2017
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