HR Serving Employees in Light of #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has once again proven the adage: sunlight is the best disinfectant. Organizations all over are taking stock of their internal culture and, seemingly, attempting to create better places to work. HR departments are at the forefront of this push to redefine workplace norms. Independent audits and whistleblower services have been brought in, and new technology has been implemented to better handle reports of sexual harassment.

Yet there is still such a far way to go. Amidst all of this change, are employees getting the best service they can from HR departments? The answer is complicated.

Changing the Culture

There’s little doubt that the #MeToo movement has forced those in power to reassess their attitudes and behaviors towards those that answer to them. New research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that nearly one-third of surveyed executives report they have adjusted their behaviors significantly since #MeToo, in order to avoid being perceived as a sexual harasser. About one-quarter of managers said they’ve adjusted their behaviors, as well.

One could argue they now better understand the damage sexual harassment causes in an organization. Twenty-three percent said sexual harassment leads to “lowered morale and decreased engagement,” while 18 percent said it “negatively impacted productivity”. Fifteen percent think it creates a “hostile work environment”.

But just because management and executives see the consequences of sexual harassment, doesn’t mean enough is being done to protect employees across the board. It also doesn’t mean the culture has been purged of all its problematic aspects. The jury is out when it comes to determining the level of improvement. While 72 percent of responding employees said they “felt satisfied with their company's efforts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace,” over one-third still thought their workplace fostered sexual harassment to at least some extent.  Worse, a Harris poll from 2018 reported that a mere 10 percent of adults working in the U.S. said their organizations “added more anti-sexual harassment training or resources.”

Women are being excluded out of fear of #MeToo

Furthermore, while executives have changed their behavior, it hasn’t always been in a good way. HR experts are concerned about the growing trend where female colleagues are not invited on “trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles,” all to avoid a situation that could be taken the wrong way. While it isn’t sexual harassment, it does present a blockade for women in the workplace in terms of opportunity.

There’s obviously room for improvement. HR professionals need to carefully review their organization’s anti-harassment and retaliation policies for effectiveness. These rules should actively prevent bad behavior, first and foremost. The reporting methods should be vetted, as well, to ensure there are enough outlets for filing reports of misconduct. Beyond that, a workable investigation protocol needs to be in place and executed every time an investigable situation occurs. 

Elevating the Position

It’s no small task to be an HR professional, especially in this era. For these departments to truly cause change, industry thought leaders are advocating for HR management positions to elevate into the C-suite of the organizational hierarchy. Moreover, they want the HR officer to answer directly to the CEO or president.

This certainly sounds like a good idea, but for vast swaths of smaller companies, it appears to be a real challenge. Many HR professionals identify as being members of “departments of one” at their respective organizations, which puts an immense amount of work on their desks and scrambles the lines of communication with executives.

The situation is worse at many startups. An owner may handle the payroll, benefits, and hiring at first, then pass it off to an employee who excels at administrative tasks later. But this person may not be qualified to professionally handle an interpersonal HR complaint like sexual harassment.

This lack of qualification is of no service to employees. Human resources need to be taken seriously, and departments need people's power to address employees’ concerns adequately. Those in HR who feel they are underqualified for the position should seek out further training. At the very least, they need to lean on other HR professionals to learn best practices and receive guidance. Working in isolation will do no longer.

Serving the Audiences

As with any conflict that goes to HR, there are two sides, or audiences, whose needs must be addressed. One is the group in power, while the other consists of the employees. It’s the employees who feel as though they are being shortchanged. There are women who have made sexual harassment claims, and believe HR protected corporate interests in their cases. This, of course, does not sit well with many HR professionals, who have sought out positions to help employees to the best of their abilities.

This problem is best addressed head-on. A safer working environment is only possible when those who investigate claims are protected against retaliation from their superiors. Hiring a combination of qualified HR professionals with more diverse leaders will go a long way toward combating a toxic organizational culture, as well.

Training is necessary all around. HR practitioners need proper skills and education to address claims of misconduct. Employees need the training to ensure they treat their co-workers with respect, and to better understand the claim-filing and investigation protocols in place at the organization. Those in power need to learn about power dynamics and the role they play in relation to those they manage.

HR leaders must commit to what they think is right. They can implement those values by taking a holistic approach toward serving employees. There are many things that still need to change but the #MeToo movement has spurred HR professionals to revamp the way organizations approach sexual harassment in the workplace.


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