Something’s rotten at the heart of HR: Sexual harassment at work

When HR colludes with abusers to silence victims of harassment, the function has failed in its duty of care

As the gory details emerge of what really goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood, in light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, HR is getting far from glowing reviews.

The New Yorker, for instance, described the Weinstein Company’s HR department as ‘utterly ineffective’ and quoted a female complainant describing it as “a place you went when you didn’t want anything to get done”.

While the high-profile nature of the stars involved has made Hollywood great fodder for tabloid headlines, cultures of harassment are endemic and each will have its known Weinsteins and Spaceys.

Already the naming and shaming has begun in other industries: from politics to the tech sector to the sporting world. At the end of October the BBC suspended Radio 5 Live rugby league presenter George Riley over harassment claims. Just a few days later defence secretary Michael Fallon resigned. (Theresa May has now introduced
a new party code of conduct.)

But the issue is by no means confined to the upper echelons of society or the most high-profile of sectors. According to the Everyday Sexism Project, workplace harassment is one of the most common issues reported to the campaigners, with nearly 10,000 entries on this topic logged. Similarly, 52% of women and 63% of young women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey last year, with 79% deciding not to report it to their employer.

Several reasons have been given for why, in many cases, HR stood back and seemingly allowed a culture of harassment to thrive – from the profession’s lack of power to pressure to protect the company not the individual. However, the question of why HR has failed to be a corporate moral conscience is complex and rooted in the wider issue of gender inequality.

Some observers take a matter-of-fact attitude to this latest scandal, arguing that we’ve seen similar before, we’ll see similar again, and it will take time for human behaviour to change.

Dan Peyton, managing partner of law firm McGuire Woods’ London office, and head of its employment law team, is one. “We are accustomed to periodic scandals regarding aspects of harassment at work. The topic is then placed at the forefront of people’s minds for a period and, among others, HR professionals are called upon to
put in place the mechanisms to prevent this sort of unacceptable behaviour,” he says. “The fuss then dies down and we await the next round of scandal, and ask why more has not been done to prevent further such scandals.”

Others are more defiant, ashamed, angry, and even heartbroken. They are determined that, to get some good out of this nightmare and the many damaged lives, we must all see this moment as a watershed one; not a watercooler one good for mere gossip.

Former lawyer and trader, Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, group director of HR at Charles Stanley, does. “What infuriates me most about the Weinstein scandal is that clearly HR, or lawyers, or both, knew what was going on and were prepared to repeatedly produce settlement agreements to hush people up. That HR felt that was the right thing to do is deeply shameful for the profession. How could anyone with a conscience agree to help, let alone encourage, an abuser?”

She concludes that “HR is in a rotten place in a lot of organisations”, adding that
“the lack of outrage in HR, in particular, breaks my heart; we should know better, there should be consequences.”

Lisa Barnwell, feminine leadership coach and founder of Bumps and the Boardroom, agrees: “This has got to be a call to action for HR. There has got to be a stopping of all this apathy. A stopping of ‘this is too big for me to change’. People make changes every day. Look how quickly Weinstein and Spacey’s lives have changed overnight. The latter has been edited out of a film he’s just made. When people set their minds to it change can happen quickly. If we just sit back we’ll be here with our granddaughters thinking ‘here we go again’.”

Barnwell, for instance, would like to see groups of HRDs getting together campaigning for change, committed to being “leaders not laggards” on the issue. And, as she stresses, the time to take action is now, when HR can ride on the wave of the #metoo momentum. The big barrier to tackling harassment has been women not feeling safe enough to speak out; now they are in their droves. HR has a unique opportunity to build on this conversation-starter to create a framework and language to ensure toxic cultures can no longer persist.

So what can HR actually do? The first thing is to take a good, hard look at the (wo)man in the mirror. “If you don’t suspect it it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” says Carrie Birmingham, former HR director at News UK and director of Carrie Birmingham Consult. “Businesses have created a habit of auditing financial accounts, I’m curious why we don’t think we should do the same for culture.”

Birmingham goes into companies to give them some objectivity about how they work (or don’t work), reporting back to the board. Typically she is drafted in after a crisis but she implores HRDs to realise that prevention is much better than cure, and this kind of regular audit should be in place to identify potentially damaging behaviours early: “There’s a sliding scale from vaguely unacceptable to completely unacceptable and you’ve got to notice when it starts escalating.”

Birmingham has much more sympathy for the HRDs involved in cases like Weinstein’s, admitting she would feel pretty powerless too if the behaviour of the person she was reporting on was also the person she was reporting to.

As well as having independent reporting structures, her other practical suggestions include employee opinion surveys, interviews with new starters who see culture more clearly, and thinking of more creative ways to educate employees about acceptable behaviours. For example, she works with a company called Forum Theatre that uses actors to bring work dynamics to life in a way that doesn’t feel like HR is pointing the finger.

Griffiths-Lambeth concedes that “it takes a certain amount of confidence, chutzpah and conviction” to speak out, and up, as an HRD (qualities that come naturally to her), but “there are some things in life that are too important to take a softly, softly approach to: this is one of them”.

Her advice to others struggling to summon the courage is: “it’s difficult to say ‘actually no, we have to change’ but if you take the first step people will listen. They will rally. And, if they don’t, do you really want to be working there anyway?”