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It’s now or never: 3 ways for HR to step up against sexual harassment at work

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Recounting her own tough experiences, Esme Oliver, author,  former lobbyist and a legislative director for two US Senators, calls on HR to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment at the workplace. 

I know from my own past experience dealing with HR in the government sector, in a Fortune 500 company, in a nonprofit, and in law firms that a woman’s claim of sexual harassment often falls on deaf ears. So many women I know have said they do not believe that HR will address their concerns because HR, in the end, is paid by the company and protects the executives – especially the rainmakers and revenue producers.

I have personally witnessed many law firms turn their back on inappropriate (often illegal) behaviour by partners simply because they bring in a lot of business. The same goes for top executives whether they are in the for-profit or nonprofit setting – the vast majority of women know these guys are in their own protected and privileged class.

So, the incentive for women to report wrongdoing is often nonexistent. And even if they do trust their HR department, they still fear retaliation from their boss hence, by and large, most women choose not to report the conduct and just “take it” and weather the storm.

I know that’s what I did for about 15 years.

I don’t mean to come at this with a jaded edge. I know there are good employers out there who care a lot about culture and the retention of solid workers. I am a lawyer myself so I get the concept of due process and the possibility of defamation and being falsely accused. However, I do think the allegations need to be treated fairly, and confidentially. And I do think the claim(s) should be investigated thoroughly and that HR should have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace.

So what is it exactly that HR should do?

Conduct a detailed and thorough investigation

HR should not only interview superiors but also the subordinates as well as anyone who has had contact with both the accuser and the alleged perpetrator. This sounds like common sense, but I know when I went through this, a lot of people in the know were not even contacted – despite my giving HR names of people who had experienced a similar situation.

Now that is really is disheartening, and it leaves one with little faith in the system. So I think a broad outreach and detailed interviews are paramount to assessing the situation and determining if a meritorious claim exists.

Explain clearly to the accused that retaliation is illegal

While this also sounds like common sense, it’s not (unfortunately) common practice. I know when I reported a valid claim of sexual harassment to HR, suddenly my boss stopped speaking to me and avoiding me even in the hallway. And his boss (a woman, no less) put me under the microscope and started a new practice of constantly reviewing my work and second-guessing all my decisions. I started to wonder if it was me now that was on trial simply because I reported what had become an intolerable situation at work.

Employees need to know that HR is a safe and neutral place and there should be no fear of retaliation by their superiors.

Take it seriously and, if found true, terminate employment

So often, women fear that HR just won’t take their allegation seriously – and they often don’t. I once reported behaviour and even though the accused admitted to doing exactly what I reported, he was simply sent to “sensitivity training” and not even stripped of his managerial responsibilities.

I mean, there was an admission of guilt but still, the company was playing with kid gloves and giving the guy a free pass. This is just demeaning to the woman, and it really makes her question her judgment in going to HR.

Another time I reported sexual harassment at a law firm, I was hushed because the guy just happened to be a rainmaker.

The allegations, of course, need to be proven true, but if there is concrete evidence to support them, HR needs to do something severe and terminate employment.

In the wake of the #metoo movement, we know that “coaching” and/or complacency doesn’t work.

Sexual harassment destroys self-esteem, confidence and lives. There has to be a zero-tolerance policy so this pervasive practice no longer continues.

Photo / 123RF

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