Fear and Panic in the H.R. Department as Sexual Harassment Allegations Multiply

The following is a portion of an article that appeared in The Washington Post on November 30, 2017 and features comments from OperationsInc CEO David Lewis. To view the original article, please click here

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by Jena McGregor

[I]n some cases human resources staff are not in place to deal with such complaints. David Lewis, who runs a consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn., said that in recent years, many newer companies have had personnel managers focused on attracting and retaining employees in a tight labor market, adding perks to mimic the work environments in Silicon Valley.

“The H.R. focus has been twisted into people who had titles like ‘chief of fun,’ ” he said. “If you’ve hired someone more for their ability to retain or attract people, but aren’t capable of dealing with complex employee relations, those are the companies I see really rethinking what the H.R. role is all about.”

New tools are emerging to let employees go directly to chief executives and boards of directors with sexual harassment complaints. A web site called AllVoices set to launch early next year will let employees bypass H.R. and anonymously answer structured questions about their experiences with harassment and discrimination. Aggregated, anonymous results will be compiled in a “dashboard” for the CEO and the board.

The founder, former 20th Century Fox film studio executive Claire Schmidt, said she got the idea for the site after realizing that “most people I talked to who had experienced harassment really did not feel safe reporting that harassment at work, to H.R. or to their bosses,” she said. “They were worried about retaliation. They were worried about how they were perceived.”

The web site could help prevent information from getting filtered through H.R., or keep senior executives from being able to say they weren’t aware of a problem. Yet that could also set up a risk for H.R., said Philadelphia-based employment lawyer Jonathan Segal, where they are seen as even less potent at managing sexual harassment complaints than some employees see them today.

“Some argue H.R. is insufficiently effective,” Segal said. “But if they’re not being included, they’re not going to be effective.”

Still, at many companies, said Lewis and others, a big fear for H.R. remains a concern that the organization’s cultural problems are not taken seriously enough.

H.R. managers “who are aware of cultural issues dogging their company haven’t been able to get management to move the needle, to say ‘hey, we’re next, we’re going to be the next company people are writing about,’ ” he said. “You can see them sticking the story in the newspaper in front of [executives] and saying ‘doesn’t this sound a lot like us?’ “