Go to Human Resources.
In a time when sexual harassment victims are speaking up in a variety of industries I’m seeing more and more people ask, “Where was HR?” … “Did anyone go to HR?” I’ve just scrolled past these comments and kept my mouth shut as people have argued one way or the other whether employees should or should not go to HR. Ironic right? That I would choose to keep my mouth shut (and not just because I have a big mouth).
As an HR professional, I think you should go to HR when you have a sexual harassment complaint. In fact, I can very vividly remember the first time I ever conducted a sexual harassment investigation. I was 24 and had less than 5 years of HR experience. I was running an office for a temp service and one of my employees came forward to tell me that an employee of the customer site had been sexually harassing her. I hadn’t had the client for very long, but I had already established a great relationship with their HR person and was able to work with him to conduct a thorough (and gut wrenching) investigation. Between the two of us, I had more HR experience and it felt like the blind leading the blind.
The thing that sticks out to me the most is that I can remember how scared my employee was to come forward. When she finally came forward she told me that the talk in the plant was she would lose her job, because she was “only a temp.” Everyone knew that if a temp complained about a full-time employee, the temps fate was sealed. She was a single mother and working as much as she could to support her and her child, but couldn’t ignore the harassment any longer. She overcame her fear and came forward. She was lucky enough to have an HR person that would see the investigation through.
I didn’t always hire for the most glamorous positions and I didn’t always have the most glamorous employees, but I know this: I will always advocate for employees when they need it, whether in-house or on a customer site. The things that we uncovered in that investigation still haunt me. The things said to employees, the things shown or done to employees, the many years it went on-far before mine and the HR manager at the times role in the company. The outcome of the investigation was termination for the accused. The temp employee who came forward became a hero to other women in the plant and things were normal for a bit. I was amazed to learn that these women had come to “accept” this type of behavior because it was a manufacturing plant and “boys will be boys” and they were outnumbered.
Fast forward several years in my career and I was working in a much more professional environment, supporting another male dominated field. A place that I thought couldn’t possibly have those kind of issues and if they did come up, we had a full team of well-educated HR professionals that would handle it. Only I was wrong.
I’ll never forget the day that I found out a female employee (who I advocated for the organization to hire) reported sexual harassment to the HR manager during her exit interview. This employee had text message proof on her phone of inappropriate conduct from a male manager and the HR manager did nothing. I often wonder if it’s because the HR manager was friends with the accused male manager, or was it because the HR manager didn’t like the way this female employee dressed? Maybe it was because the HR manager had learned to keep her mouth shut in order to survive the boys club she worked for. I’ll never know, because I’ll never ask her, but no matter the reason her lack of response tells me she doesn’t represent the HR that I advocate for. Whatever her reason it reminds me that my profession needs a lot of work. Whatever her reason for not acting on proof right in front of her face tells me that she represents why employees won’t dare go to HR for help in a situation that could be detrimental to their own working environment and career. That HR manager represents everything wrong with our profession and all the reasons why people can get away with sexual harassment and cover it with intimidation tactics-male or female.
That HR manager isn’t the only problem. There are many in the field and my plea to all of them is either get out of HR or use your network to support your spine and stand up to do the right thing. Stop feeding the notion that employees shouldn’t come to HR because we won’t do anything about it. Do something, do the right thing. If you don’t know what to do, find someone who does. Bring someone else in to conduct the investigation if you have to (an option I now prefer over doing the investigation myself, helps to keep the outcome free from existing bias). Participate in HR training’s, round-tables, webinars, whatever it takes for you to learn how to do this very tough part of your job!
You have an entire network of HR professionals out here who want you to do the right thing and will help you when you stumble!