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No grey area in handling sexual harassment

Former HP chairman told worker it was her choice whether or not to tell others and start an investigation

By Todd Humber

I can understand what Ray Lane was thinking, and that makes me part of the problem.

Lane, described by Reuters as a “onetime highflying tech executive” who was the former executive chairman of Hewlett Packard and president of Oracle, didn’t immediately tell others when he found out a female worker had been harassed.

It happened while Lane was working at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2011. He decided not to tell others, or launch an investigation, because he said he feared for the woman’s safety.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “It was my mistake. I cared more about her feelings than anything else. I thought it should be her choice” whether to tell others at the firm and start an investigation.

Instead, he told the woman to think it over and discuss it with her husband — in part because Lane feared for her safety.

Clearly, that’s wrong. But I wonder how many other people might fall into the same trap. HR professionals know exactly what to do in these situations. Line managers, not so much.

If one of my staff members, or a colleague, approached me and said she had been the victim of sexual harassment — and she wanted me to keep it quiet, or was humming and hawing about what to do, would I go straight to upper management or HR? Clearly, that’s what I should do.

And I truly think it’s what I would do. Even though I’m not an HR professional, nearly 15 years of covering HR issues has given me better insight than the average manager into how to handle such a situation. Other leaders and managers don’t have that luxury.

But I can understand the reluctance, one could almost call it compassion, to let the victim decide what to do and the timelines involved. It would be hard if the person were pleading with me to keep it quiet, or not to approach HR or senior management for fear of repercussions or for her safety. (Or his — we can’t forget that sexual harassment is a two-way street.)

In the case at the venture capital firm, the woman complained that a colleague tried to enter her hotel room at night, wearing a bathrobe and holding a glass of wine. In court, Lane said he was worried that the accused — Ajit Nazre — “could have pushed his way in” and the situation “could have gone in a different direction,” according to Reuters.

After the woman told other partners at the firm, an investigation was indeed launched. There’s more background to this story — see Former HP chairman admits ‘mistake’ in sexism trial for the complete picture.

But it’s worth remembering — and this case serves as a reminder — that when it comes to handling complaints of sexual harassment, there should be no grey area. Every complaint needs to be taken seriously, escalated and investigated in a professional manner.

We can all feel compassion for the victim, but it is irresponsible not to take swift steps to ensure incidents are reported, investigated and acted upon if there is proof of wrongdoing.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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