HR's role in sexual harassment claims

Opinion: Columns

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By Kwame Salter

News of widespread sexual abuse/harassment of women has hit the proverbial fan. No industry, organization or political party is exempt. While reprehensible, sexual harassment is not surprising. The objectification of women is clear in every culture on planet Earth. Sexism, excuse the pun, is the "mother of all -isms." Our culture is no exception. 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 in time 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 used to be "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. 

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 dimensions 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 independent enough to take on an influential person rumored to be a sexual predator? Or does the HR representative see the protection of an alleged harasser as part of their agent role versus investigating a sexual harassment claim?

Regrettably, too many in HR are fearful of 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 or piss off 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 is being misinterpreted by the woman or that the offending behavior was unintentional. The HR representative might even suggest that the event or situation resulted from something she did or wore. Sometimes, 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. 

The nexus of a professional relationship and friendship can undermine a serious 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. Explicitly, when informed of a potential case of harassment, HR should ensure the following steps become a part of the intake process:

1. Make no judgment about either the woman's or the man's character.

2. Do not restate what the woman says as an attempt to sanitize her complaint. Record what she said and do not interpret what you think she said.

3. Without equivocation, ensure that an impartial investigation will take place.

4. Reassure the complainant you will make sure, regardless of the investigation outcome, that no recrimination against her will occur.

5. Objectively investigate the complaint and make the alleged harasser aware of the issue and the consequences, if found to be legitimate.

6. Keep the alleged harassers' boss in the loop. Emphasize that there should be no contact with the complainant.

7. Early on, protect yourself. Establish to all that you intend to be an "honest broker" during and after the investigation. Let all know that after the investigation concludes, you will let the "chips fall where they may."

In closing, the advice shared in this article notwithstanding, investigating sexual harassment claims against powerful men is a dicey proposition. Always do the right thing. Still, watch your back.

Kwame Salter, an Oak Park resident, is a retired senior vice president of Human Resources. 

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