Before we experienced sexual harassment at work, we experienced it somewhere else.
Another thing that unexpectedly took up a lot of brain space for me in 2018 goes all the way back to a conversation that started in 2015.
For several years now I’ve been part of the SHRM Blog team that gets a pass to conference each year in exchange for writing about the event. All other notions about SHRM aside, it’s usually a pretty great team of people and I’ve found some incredible mentors and friends through this avenue. Back in 2015 the annual conference was in Vegas and the fundraiser (back when we also had an annual fundraising event for NKH) that was organized for the group to participate in was a poetry slam.
Even though this was my third time being at annual conference, I still didn’t know a lot of the group and I kind of stuck to myself at these events and a handful of familiar faces. One of the people who participated in the slam shared her horrible experiences from multiple conferences through her poetry. I sat so still when she was talking. It was the first time I heard someone who was in the same field as me talk about the way she was treated by males in the industry, and sometimes other females. How she was talked to, how she was propositioned, how certain things were expected of her… I very distinctly remember someone I knew at my table leaning over and saying “she and I are clearly not going to the same conferences.”
But here’s the deal, we are going to the same conferences. It’s happening at conferences that YOU and I are attending. Conferences full of HR professionals! And lawyers! And other business leaders!
After the slam was over I kept telling myself to go over there and talk to her. I was so shocked about what she shared and I truly felt for her, I could relate. I couldn’t think of any words to say so I said what really turned out to be the worst thing I could think of “Why do you keep coming back to these?”
I’m not going to share specifics of what she shared that night in front of the whole crowd because I have literally never talked to her again and did not get her permission to share the details. I’m not going to share specifically what she said in response to my question because that’s for her to share, but I can say she handled it with more grace than I probably would have. I mean, I basically asked her why she continued to come to a conference related to her field that also was a source of potential clients which ultimately turns into revenue. Her livelihood. I asked her why she came back to something that represented a connection to her livelihood.
I have replayed the poetry she shared that night and my idiotic question in my mind so many times since 2015, but most of those times were during the year of 2018.
I was part of the problem that night in Las Vegas. I asked a question that implied it was her fault that these things kept happening because she kept coming back. I asked a question that implied if she would stop coming, these things would stop happening EVEN THOUGH I know these things can happen to anyone, anywhere.
The Vegas conference was a weird conference for me. I felt that a lot of the content was “just playing it safe,” and not challenging us to be bold in our profession. We HR professionals need to hear the hard truth, and this hard truth is that we cannot sit in our offices, behind our desks, and help create a narrative that the victim is to blame. We cannot ask questions that imply a worker put themselves in a position to be harassed just by showing up.
Think about the last time you heard about someone being harassed or being a victim outside of work? How did you react? Did you ask a really dumb question like me? Did you assume the victim should’ve done something different? Were you impartial? Did you look for the facts? Were you sure you knew the victim was lying because you know something about their character already? The truth is, who we are at home is who we are at work-you can’t fake it forever.
That incident in Las Vegas in 2015 is burned in my memory forever. The good thing about that is, I learned something about myself that night and I’ve equipped myself with the resources to handle that differently in the future.
Friend, what are you going to do differently in 2019?
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!