HR needs to move from a passive approach to a more pro-active, open-door approach
by Brian Daly
Two years ago this month, the #MeToo movement exploded on social media, largely as a result of high-profile harassment cases in the U.S. entertainment industry.
In Canada, our version of #MeToo arguably started a few years earlier, with some widely publicized scandals in organizations such as the CBC, RCMP and Canadian military.
With all the public and media attention to workplace misbehaviour and harassment, what has happened in the past two years since the launch of #MeToo? Are workplaces getting better? Are people more likely to report harassment as a result of the increased publicity?
Are we, as HR leaders, doing enough in our organizations and in the broader business community?
At first, it appears that reporting of misbehaviour is increasing. HR leaders and employment lawyers say that they are seeing an increased number of complaints, but these are not exclusively related to sexual harassment.
And a larger proportion of cases are moving into the legal realm with greater involvement of police, human rights tribunals and other bodies.
Without question, this is good news. Research consistently shows that much of workplace harassment is never reported. The more we see the full extent of the problem, the better positioned we are to root out the underlying causes.
But more complaints are not a solution, they’re just a sign of how big the problem really is. The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a landmark report last year on sexual harassment in the sciences. It confirmed that the types of sexual harassment depicted in the media, such as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, are only the tip of the iceberg. Other forms of gender harassment, such as humiliation and name calling, are more common and can potentially be as damaging to an individual and their career.
In response to #MeToo, many employers have reviewed and revamped harassment policies and complaint investigation processes and ramped up harassment training. I’ve personally taken these steps as an HR leader, and they are critically important measures for organizations to take. But are these steps enough? Or are they Band-Aids that fail to fully address the real problem?
The National Academies report found that the strongest predictor of workplace sexual harassment is the degree to which an organization’s climate communicates tolerance of harassment — not whether the organization has a policy or does training.
Rather, the key is the actual behaviour that occurs in the organization and what action the organization takes in real-life situations. It’s about actions, not (just) words on paper or training slides.
In this context, I was particularly struck by an article published in the July edition of The Atlantic, titled “The Problem with HR.” The article states that #MeToo reflects a “massive failure of human resources to do the job we have expected it to perform,” reminding us that “even Harvey Weinstein’s company, after all, had an HR department.”
It goes on to suggest that HR lacks the organizational clout and credibility to effectively address workplace harassment, quoting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which found that HR is “too focused on protecting the employer from liability,” and not focused enough on ending the problem.
That EEOC went on to state that “much of the harassment training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool,” with no evidence that the training had any real impact on the actual frequency of workplace sexual harassment.
No wonder that many women, and members of marginalized groups, are reluctant to trust HR and report their concerns. As a CHRO, I’ve personally had employees and union leaders tell me that they are very reluctant to bring complaints to HR, not because they don’t trust HR people as individuals, but because they don’t trust the system overall and HR’s place in that system. As I’ve been reminded repeatedly, HR works for, and is paid by, top management.
Taking the necessary steps to end harassment
While I disagree with the author of The Atlantic article — who suggests that investigations are too important to be left in the hands of HR — I do believe HR needs to consider whether we are taking the necessary steps to truly foster a culture that recognizes, values and respects the dignity of each and every individual.
First, HR needs to move from a passive approach to handling complaints, to a more pro-active, open-door approach. HR cannot assume that because they’ve communicated the policy and trained staff, people know and are comfortable bringing concerns forward.
One downside of the #MeToo movement is that organizations are increasingly taking a more legalistic, regimented approach to handling complaints. This can bring a real chill to the process, discouraging individuals who may be uncomfortable about a workplace incident but are not ready to necessarily launch a formal complaint through a legalistic process.
Individuals should be able to bring concerns forward through whatever vehicle they are most comfortable using, including hotlines, surveys and online tools such as live chat.
HR should reconsider who conducts workplace investigations. Are HR staff sufficiently skilled and experienced to be, and be seen as, credible, independent investigators? In smaller organizations with limited HR resources, supplementing internal HR staff with external HR investigators can bring credibility to the process.
It’s important that HR focuses not just on resolving individual complaints, but also uses them as a springboard to review workplace culture and HR policies, to root out systemic issues and identify preventative steps to avoid similar complaints in the future.
HR needs to review and revamp policies, investigation procedures and resources to ensure they are contemporary and reflective of evolving societal norms and recent changes in legislation and case law. We need to consider the changing world of work, with increased use of contract, freelance and other non-traditional workers. Are our policies adequate to deal with complaints and investigations involving these non-employee workers, and those who work remotely?
Respect in workplace training programs also need to be reviewed to ensure they are truly effective and not just check-the-box exercises. Too often, staff view these training programs in the same way that Ellen DeGeneres described them in 2014 on her talk show. “Last week we had our mandatory sexual-harassment training seminar,” she said. “It combines frank discussions about workplace behaviour and… mind-numbing boredom.”
In my own experience, the best way to tackle this is to hold informal, small group discussion sessions where HR can truly engage in two-way dialogue with staff at a person-to-person level. Having personally conducted dozens of such small-group discussion sessions over a 12-month period, I found they were eye-opening sessions for everyone there, and certainly for me.
I’m not ready to throw in the towel on HR’s important role in this area. But HR leaders need to realize that many employees do not see HR as a trusted place to bring workplace concerns to.
We need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we should be doing to address this challenge. In a society where many women, and most members of marginalized groups, have experienced workplace harassment, it’s hard to argue that we don’t need to do a lot more. As an HR leader and the father of a teenage daughter, my hope and ambition are that HR can play a greater role in weeding out bad behaviour and fostering workplaces that truly value the dignity and individuality of each person.
Brian Daly has more than 25 years of HR experience, including 10 years as CHRO for Toronto Star Media Group. He is president of Brian Daly and Associates, an HR consultancy focused on nurturing respectful workplace. He is treasurer and a member of the board of directors of the Strategic Capability Network in Toronto.