I’m a 20-year veteran of HR. Something needs to be fixed.
Susan Fowler is a human resources nightmare.
She’s the former engineer who blew the whistle on sexism and harassment at Uber, and she’s not the only one. Fowler and her colleagues complained to Uber’s leadership about the culture of harassment within the organization, and they were routinely dismissed by everybody — including the HR department.
It was only when Fowler wrote a blog post detailing her complaints, and it went viral, that Uber got serious. The company hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to launch an investigation and understand why so many women had such bad things to say about their employee experience. The report was damning, and more than 20 people have been fired for inappropriate conduct. Travis Kalanick, the CEO, is currently out on a leave of absence.
I’m a 20-year veteran of human resources. In that time, I worked at big organizations like Pfizer, Kemper Insurance, and Monsanto. I left my corporate job in 2007 and started writing and speaking about HR in an attempt to transform the entire function. I haven’t done a very good job because HR still sucks.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but very few people are shocked to hear that sexism and harassment still happen in the modern work environment. Even fewer are shocked to hear that HR did nothing about it. The lack of outrage at HR, in particular, breaks my heart. We should know better. There should be consequences.
Part of me is angry, and part of me feels sorry for my former friends and colleagues who work in the trenches of HR. How do you help organizations attract and retain great talent while also doing your job and protecting the company from lawsuits when something goes horribly wrong? The answer is that you can’t.
And as an employee, what do you do if you’re being sexually harassed at work? The sad answer is that despite what your work orientation may tell you, going to HR is by no means a surefire way to stop this kind of behavior. As women in the workplace, we have to use whatever resources are at our disposal to take matters into our own hands, whether it’s quitting, forming a union or affinity group, or going viral with a Medium post.
Human resources corresponds to shrinking union membership in America
I believe that human resources is designed to fail women who come forward about harassment. To understand why, it’s important to look at why HR is there in the first place.
At its core, HR exists to protect the company against employee-related risks. Shareholders and investors want executive leadership teams to improve productivity while keeping wages low. Business owners and leaders need a way to monitor and manage employee activities while retaining distance from the workforce. And most bosses want to keep their hands clean and outsource the emotional labor of managing people to someone else.
That’s where HR comes into the picture. We once had unions as mediators and guardians of the workforce. They were concerned about issues such as fair pay, health insurance, and safety compliance. The rise of the modern human resources department corresponds to shrinking union membership in America. Someone had to respond to worker needs and to keep the trains running on time. It’s an unglamorous job with matriarchal overtones, which is why managers don’t want to do it. Cue the modern HR lady.
So in my experience, HR departments in America operate under a dubious mandate: Keep workers engaged and happy, but make sure nobody sues the company. Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible.
It’s no wonder people like Susan Fowler and her colleagues complained numerous times to Uber’s HR department and felt like they didn’t have an employee advocate. They didn’t.
So how can HR change in the wake of the Uber sexual harassment scandal? I’m not sure it matters. Instead, I think women need to look to other places for solutions knowing that HR often isn’t on their side.
Channel your inner Susan Fowler when someone sexually harasses you
If you’ve ever been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in the workplace, I’m very sorry. On behalf of my fellow human resources professionals, I want to apologize. You’re not the first victim. We’ve been told about the behavior, and the truth is pretty simple: We can’t fire this person because most of the time, we don’t have the power to do it.
Our job in HR is to retain the best and brightest talent and also to handle employee complaints, and when these conflict and the best and brightest talent is the harasser, HR is incentivized to protect the harasser. And sometimes the person in power might not be the best and brightest, but they’re still in power. They win. Susan Fowler loses.
At most companies, HR is an administrative department that has no real authority beyond our four walls. At our best, we are business partners and advisers. At our worst, we are babysitters and police officers. Final employment decisions rest with the leaders who truly run your company.
Yes, some human resources teams and organizations do get it right and quickly move into action when women voice their concerns around sex discrimination and sexual harassment. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that American companies paid out $40.7 million in 2016 to remedy charges of sexual harassment, meaning these were payments to women who went to HR to report incidents and were ignored. What that tells me is that HR must do a better job of being a partner and adviser to women at work, too.
Knowing that HR is messed up, there is something women who are harassed at work can do: Follow Susan Fowler’s example. Follow the chain of command at your company. Report the incident. Then leverage your network and start your job search.
Once you find a new job, use the internet to tell every single human being on the …read more