Viewpoint: Sexual Harassment Training for HR

Be strong enough to stand up to company leadership that might squelch harassment investigations

By Jan Bowler December 8, 2017

​As a longtime HR practitioner (now retired), I cannot help but notice that one of the primary causes of our current sexual harassment crisis is not being addressed: the failure of HR to stand up to power. 

HR practitioners walk a daily tightrope attempting to align the needs and concerns of employees with the needs and concerns of the C-suite, boards of directors, customers and shareholders. For years, we as HR professionals talked about, longed for and fought for "a seat at the table." We wanted to be taken seriously as drivers of corporate success. And in many cases, I grant you, that seat has now long been held and its promise fully delivered on. But in all too many instances, HR is still ignored, humored or, in the worst case, loathed. 

And I contend that this is an issue of our own making—perfectly exemplified by the current wave of revelations about sexual harassment in every segment of the American workforce. How many women (and men) have reported their concerns to HR but no action was taken? The evidence suggests that there are untold numbers of sexual harassment allegations that have been dismissed without a proper investigation or holding someone accountable. Why is that? I contend that it is because in many (not all) cases, HR lacked the courage to do what was necessary to effectively address the bad behavior of those in power.  

HR is not for wimps. It takes courage and conviction to speak truth to power. 

And how many employees did not report abuses at all because they did not or could not trust that HR would or could protect and defend them? Not only are these instances miserable HR failures, they are indicative of a serious gap in trust. 

Consider that the ones who need training to prevent sexual harassment are HR people, not just execs and employees. If the executive team fails to hold the moral/ethical high ground in an organization, isn't it HR's job to step up and do so? And if we fail to do that, aren't we enablers of bad behavior? 

HR is not for wimps. It takes courage and conviction to speak truth to power—to take the uncomfortable step of going over the CEO's head (if he or she is the alleged harasser)—and to put your own job on the line to do the right thing.  

I hear a lot of rhetoric these days about how men have always abused their power and women have always been victimized by it. First, this is a slight to the men who have also been abused. But to the extent it's true, doesn't it also represent a failure of those whose job it is to prevent victimization to stand up, call attention to the issue and address it, as it is now finally being addressed—let's hope once and for all. 

Thus, I think now is the moment for the profession of human resources to take stock of our own failures and our own complicity in allowing this unacceptable behavior to continue for so long. What rationalizations have we used when failing to alleviate the concerns in our own organizations? Have we ever been among those who looked the other way because we did not want to risk our relationship with higher-ups, our bonus or our livelihood? Have we really held the high ground, or have we shrunk into powerlessness? The current steady stream of revelations creates the opportunity for us ALL to evaluate our past performance and raise the standards of acceptable behavior for ourselves and our teams. 

Editor's Note: We want to hear from you. What is your reaction to this opinion piece? Let us know on this post on SHRM Connect, our online community for SHRM members.

Jan Bowler is a SHRM member, president of and former senior director of HR for Peerless Systems Corporation. 


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