Monday, June 24, 2019

Can HR Solve the Workplace Sexual Harassment Problem?

I for one count myself among the fans of Caitlin Flanagan’s writing. I have hesitated to comment on her most recent piece from The Atlantic because I do not think that it’s up to her standards.

Nonetheless, let’s have a look.

In her piece Flanagan addresses sexual harassment, thus, the #MeToo movement. And she remarks that within corporations those who are supposed to be dealing with rampant sexual harassment are human resources workers, thus the ladies of HR. She notes that most HR workers are female. And yet, most female victims of sexual harassment avoid taking their complaints to HR. They know that HR is working for the Man, not for the sisterhood.

HR does not have the power or even the inclination to deal with the problem. It provides training seminars and earnest proposals, but can do very little. You see, Flanagan reports, HR is designed to protect the company from lawsuits, by making the problems go away.

On the other side, if the problem is as pervasive as we believe it to be, HR will need to ask the value, to the company, of destroying the careers of senior male executives. How well will the company function under such circumstances? It is a difficult balance. If you are about to launch a major military invasion or to defend a major military installation and you discover that your commanding officers have committed acts of sexual harassment, do you dismiss them and risk losing the battle or keep them on, while holding your nose?

If you think that it’s an easy question, you are wrong.

Flanagan does not mention one obvious corollary of her analysis. If HR is devoting its time to protecting against lawsuits, that must mean that we as a nation have chosen to deal with the sexual harassment issue by way of lawsuits and indictments. Evidently, this has not worked. Yet, Flanagan has no further insights in how we might deal with the problem, or even of why we are having the problem.

For one, she has a blindspot. She sees the origin of the problem in Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas. In the world of Harvey Weinstein and Co., Thomas’s supposed offenses, involving foul language and vulgar references, seem less than malign.

And yet, Flanagan utters not a word about America’s first couple of sexual harassment: Bill and Hillary Clinton. People were appalled at the Anita Hill allegations, but many of those who should have defended harassed and assaulted women turned a blind eye to the accusations against Bill Clinton. Need we repeat that Hillary Clinton, in whose name the #MeToo movement has purportedly been launched, was the nation’s leading enabler of sexual harassment.

The problem is cultural more than personal. We agree with Flanagan that senior executives should take the lead in fighting against sexual harassment, but how about casting a cold eye on the godparents of harassment, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Furthermore, for better or for worse, the nation has suffered a sexual revolution. People have been encouraged to be more open and honest and shameless about their sexual feelings. They have been told to let it all hang out, to express it all, not to bottle it up and get cancer. Isn’t this what some sexual harassers are doing: following the new cultural script.

Moreover, business is now more casual. People are less formal. And yet, casual dress suggests, however subtly, that people are not just there to do business. Naturally, the titans of industry have responded to this overly casual atmosphere by making it more casual indeed. Clearly, this is not going to help.

And then, another issue that Flanagan manages to ignore completely, many young women have taken complete possession of their sexuality. They are unashamed and unabashed about seeking out their own hookups, about putting up Tinder profiles, of partying hard and long.

One hates to have to say it, but many young women do not act as though they respect themselves. If they want to be respected they should take off the Pussy Hats, shut down their Tinder profiles and project a more professional tone and demeanor. It is wrong to tell people that they can behave any which way, can advertise it in public, and expect that no one is going to draw the wrong conclusion.

All of this is not going to stamp out the problem altogether, but it will clearly make a difference… by changing the larger cultural climate. Isolating the issue within the walls of corporate America is shortsighted. Flanagan’s focus is far too narrow to be helpful.

Anyway, for the record, examine her ideas, in her words:

For 30 years, ever since Anita Hill testified at Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, HR has been almost universally accepted as the mechanism by which employers attempt to prevent, police, and investigate sexual harassment. Even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission directs Americans to their HR offices if they experience harassment. That the #MeToo movement kept turning up so many shocking stories at so many respected places of employment seemed to me to reflect a massive failure of human resources to do the job we have expected it to perform. Even Harvey Weinstein’s company, after all, had an HR department.

And Harvey Weinstein was a close friend of the Clintons. He knew well that they would let him get away with anything as long as he continued to support their political ambitions. If HRC had been elected in 2016 Weinstein would not be facing jail time. Flanagan should have noted the point.

So, she raises the question:

If HR is such a vital component of American business, its tentacles reaching deeply into many spheres of employees’ work lives, how did it miss the kind of sexual harassment at the center of the #MeToo movement? And given that it did, why are companies still putting so much faith in HR? I returned to these questions many times over the course of the following year, interviewing workplace experts, lawyers, management consultants, and workers in the field.

The problem is that HR is part of the company. It is concerned with what is good for the company, not necessarily for what is good for individuals within the company. This means that HR professionals are professionals. They are doing their jobs.

Fairly or not, HR is seen as the division of the company that slows things down, generates endless memos, meddles in employees’ personal business, holds compulsory “trainings,” and ruins any fun and spirit-lifting thing employees come up with.

And, especially:

And when it comes to sexual harassment, women understand that Jane reports to upper management, not some neutral body that stands in allegiance with right moral action. If employers judged HR departments by their ability to prevent sexual harassment, most would have gotten a failing grade long ago. What HR is actually responsible for—one of the central ways the department “adds value” to a company—is serving as the first line of defense against a sexual-harassment lawsuit. These two goals are clearly aligned, but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that you can achieve the latter without doing much of anything at all about the former.

Through Flanagan’s lens the women of HR are oppressed by the patriarchy.

Ellen’s joke depended on our common understanding that in the decades since Anita Hill’s testimony, HR has created a huge body of instructional films, computer training modules, seminar scripts, and written policies on sexual harassment. That a subject as urgent and—in its own, lurid way—bound with eros, fear, and guilt created an oeuvre known primarily for its stupefying dullness should have been a clue that the serious issue of harassment was being funneled through a bureaucracy whose aim was not (at least not purely) protecting women workers.


At solving the problem, HR is not great. At creating protocols of “compliance” to defend a company against lawsuits? By that criterion, it has been a smashing success. How do we know? Partly because employers are so devoted to it; the first thing many an executive will do when a company is under scrutiny for sexual harassment is heap praise on its crackerjack HR team, and describe the accused men as outliers.

How bad is the problem? Or better, how much has our effort to have a national conversation about harassment, to bring it into the light of day, to gnash our teeth about it solved the problem. Or has the enhanced awareness and raised consciousness made the problem worse, by making it seem more like a norm than an aberration.

Flanagan continues:

In fact, the movement could have begun a full year earlier, in 2016, when a special task force from the EEOC released its findings on sexual harassment. The occasion was the anniversary of the Meritor case. The task force had been charged with determining how much progress the country had made since that historic decision. Its finding: very little. “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool,” the task force found. That’s an incredible statement—three decades of failure.

The EEOC report is a government white paper for the ages: sprawling, maddeningly unfocused, almost willfully opaque. But wade through it with pen in hand, and you realize it is also a startling document. It reveals that sexual harassment is “widespread” and “persistent,” and that 85 percent of workers who are harassed never report it. It found that employees are much more likely to come up with their own solution—such as avoiding the harasser, downplaying the harassment, or simply enduring it—than to seek help from HR. They are far more likely to ask a family member or co-worker for advice than to file a complaint, because they fear that they will face repercussions if they do.

So, we can overthrow the patriarchy and destroy companies and careers and families. And yet, as we all know by now making punishment especially harsh induces women not to report harassment. How bad does it have to be before you put a man out of a job, and destroy a reputation the is shared by his wife and children? As everyone knows, the victims of sexual harassment are often shunned in the workplace.

Like everyone else who understands the problem, including the EEOC, the HR workers I met at the conference reported that there is only one way to eradicate harassment from a workplace: by creating a climate and culture that starts at the very top of the company and establishes that harassment is not tolerated and will be punished severely. Middle managers can’t change the culture of a company; only the most senior people can do that. And expecting an HR worker—with a car loan, a mortgage, college tuition around the corner—to risk her job in a fight against management on behalf of an employee she barely knows is unrealistic.

HR is no match for sexual harassment. It pits male sexual aggression against a system of paperwork and broken promises, and women don’t trust it. For 30 years, we’ve invested responsibility in HR, and it hasn’t worked out. We have to find a better way.

If lawsuits and summary justice have not done the job until now, why imagine that they are going to do it now? If anything, we need to understand the larger climate producing the epidemic of sexual harassment if we are going to solve the problem.


trigger warning said...

"Flanagan reports, HR is designed to protect the company from lawsuits, by making the problems go away"

That's a surprise. I thought HR were the folks tasked to explain why this year's health plan is actually better than last year's, despite the appearance of costing more and covering less. Silly me.

Anyway, I refer Flanagan to the October 2017 issue of Scientific American, and the article entitled "Sexual Victimization by Women Is More Common Than Previously Known":

"[T]he CDC’s nationally representative data revealed that over one year, men and women were equally likely to experience nonconsensual sex, and most male victims reported female perpetrators."


"the common one-dimensional portrayal of women as harmless victims reinforces outdated gender stereotypes."

Outdated, indeed. :-D

In fairness, though, the article is not typical of what one reads on Twitter (viz., no emojis, big words, percentages, etc.), so the content may be beyond Flanagan's competence.

MikeyParks said...

Is anyone allowed to ask the question: Is everything considered sexual harassment actually sexual harassment? Using violent rape as a "10", what would pinching an ass be? What would a proposition be? What would a stolen kiss be? Are they ALL 10's? If not, maybe the reaction/punishment should be equal to the offense. This whole "everything is equally serious" mindset is dangerous and should be re-examined.

sestamibi said...

Dirty Harry had it right:

Dan Patterson said...

HR. Good Lord, deliver us.
I remember when we used to call it the "Personnel Office". Once the province of "is this applicant an employee's kid?", and "What does it say in the Employee Handbook?" and now a never-ENDING source of nannyism populated by shrill harpies looking for a violation of ANYTHING. Did I mention Duh-VERS-uh-tee? And often that "thing" is some sexual exploitation or other, real or as a tool for revenge or psychological satisfaction. Defense against lawsuits makes some sense in that world; why concentrate on work process, benefits, efficiency, or policy clarification?
Women as harmless victims? Of course, sometimes. Women as the perpetrators of suspicion, envy, rumor, traitorous deception, and jealousy? Mostly.

UbuMaccabee said...

Isn’t HR where the diversity hires land after dropping their STEM programs because they were in danger of failing out of college? It is ground zero in the corporate wasteland that all smart people want nothing to do with. It exists to protect people who are not you and it is run by people who are much dumber than the people who make essential contributions to the success of the company. The whole thing should be outsourced.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The problem in HR sexual harassment enforcement is the absence of a “reasonable person” standard. For whatever reason, all sexual harassment claims are treated by HR as DEFCON 1 events.

HR people base all decisions on the possibility of a lawsuit. It’s like the monster living under your bed. That’s why they’re not taken seriously.

Unfortunate, really, since the decisions about who you recruit. select, compensate, develop, retain, promote, terminate,etc. are among the most important business decisions you make. “Strategic HR” is good business, but it’s INCREDIBLY rare.

The real problem in small businesses today with less than 300-500 people is the single HR Manager who oversees everything. For these businesses, they need HR for regulatory compliance and recruiting. Yet solid regulatory compliance and effective recruiting are vastly different skill sets. It is infinitesimally rare to find a professional who is good at both. If you do, you have to pay through the nose for that person. So most small businesses choose someone good at one, and the other suffers. Outsourcing HR is expensive for these companies — especially recruiting. This compliance-recruiting conundrum is one of the biggest and most-avoided topics in small business today.