HR Has an Emerging Role in Battling Sex Trafficking

Employees could be using company resources to solicit sex during work hours

By Steve Bates
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During her darkest days three years ago, the young woman had no job. Her son was living with the boy’s father. “Drugs and alcohol became a constant. I went through rock bottom.”

The woman—who asked that her name not be published—had a high school diploma, but at the time she could not envision a day when she would have a stable job and life. That changed when she entered Hire Hope, a program that provides life skills and other training and job opportunities for former sex trafficking victims and other at-risk young women. Today, the 26-year-old is an executive administrator at a Fortune 500 technology company in the Southeast, supporting two teams of professionals at two campuses.

“It’s a pretty big job,” said the woman, who started work at the company in July 2015. “I’m their life raft.” Yet, Hire Hope was her life raft, and she is grateful for the organization’s assistance and for her employer’s willingness to take a chance on hiring her. “I was given an opportunity to change everything in my life,” she said.

HR professionals and other business leaders are discovering that they may be able to help minimize the scourge of sex trafficking. In addition to providing jobs for former victims, they can:

  • Adopt and clarify company policies that prohibit employees from buying sexual services using company time and resources and from spending company funds on entertainment at strip clubs, which have been linked to sex trafficking.
  • Update the company’s disciplinary processes to cover violations of these policies.
  • Train employees about ways that they can help thwart sex trafficking, such as by reporting suspicious activity to authorities.
  • Work with nonprofit organizations advocating for changes that help to curb sex trafficking.

Buying Sex at Work

Sex trafficking is a huge, largely hidden and significantly misunderstood problem in the U.S., as well as around the globe. Defined as prostituting a minor and/or using force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into sex work, it is a $150 billion industry worldwide. About 4,000 cases are reported annually in the U.S., according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, though it is likely that many more go unreported.

Sex trafficking can potentially be found in every employment sector. Recent research compiled by the Seattle-based Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking (BEST) Employers Alliance indicates that:

  • About 1 in 6 men in the U.S. report having solicited sex.
  • More than half of prostituted people in the U.S. say they have met clients on company properties.
  • The peak time for securing sex online is 2 p.m., suggesting significant use of company time and computers.

“Sex-buying takes place in the heart of the workplace,” said Stephanie Mar Brettmann, Ph.D., executive director of BEST. “Traffickers and buyers are using business properties” such as offices and vehicles in company parking lots.

“It happens everywhere,” said Michele Sarkisian, president and CEO of Atlanta-area consulting firm P3 Advisors and a volunteer advocate for victims of trafficking. She noted that many sex workers have been coerced into their role.

Unfortunately, “Business has been slow to catch on to the problem,” said Jack Bruce, SHRM-SCP, president of the Atlanta chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. “There are certain people—like me—who did not believe it was taking place” to the extent that it has been reported, he added.

Bruce said he wants to see HR play a bigger role in fighting sex trafficking and pointed out that not addressing exploitation in the workplace leaves employers vulnerable to a significant loss of reputation. He and other advocates for victims of sex trafficking say that any time employees buy sex using company resources, this can raise an organization’s legal and financial risks, jeopardize federal contracts, and lead to a loss of employee productivity.

“Much like sexual harassment 30 or 40 years ago, this is becoming an issue that companies cannot ignore,” said Brettmann. The alliance’s website provides an informational video about the issue and details on training opportunities for employers.

Breaking the Cycle

The executive administrator at the Fortune 500 company benefited from a partnership between Wellspring Living, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works with authorities to rescue young girls from life on the streets, and staffing firm Randstad. Randstad already had a program that taught high school students the basics of what it takes to succeed in a work environment. But when Randstad North America chief human resource officer Jim Link heard about Wellspring Living, Randstad retooled its program offerings to meet the needs of sex trafficking survivors. The program morphed into Hire Hope, which has supported nearly 50 young women in its first three years.

The first Hire Hope graduation ceremony was held in 2013 at a Randstad office in Atlanta. Only seven women were in that class. But Link recalls the reaction to “the things I heard in that room and the impact we were having on these people. There was not a dry eye in the house. I had knots in my throat.”

“The young women flourish in this environment,” said Mary Frances Bowley, president of Wellspring Living. She said she recently received a call from a Hire Hope graduate who is now earning $20 an hour. “It’s working. I can really see a breaking of a cycle. They will be contributing members of the community. Their children will be at much less risk.”

Bowley, Link and Brettmann say that this type of program can be exported to other communities. But Link cautioned that it is the partnership of a nonprofit group like Wellspring Living and a business organization that leads to success. Finding jobs for former victims of sex trafficking might be the hardest part.

“We have to provide as much education to potential employers as we do to victims,” said Link.

“HR leaders, particularly those who influence hiring decisions, can be part of the solution,” said Bruce. “Just as corporations leverage their hiring as a means of lending a helping hand to veterans, the disabled or troubled youth trying to chart a new path, employers can provide opportunities for survivors of trafficking by partnering with organizations that are [rehabilitating] these survivors with employable skills.”

The executive administrator said that even after nearly a year on the job, she occasionally needs help getting up to speed with the world of work. For example, “It took me forever to figure out what COB means,” she said, because she had previously spent so little time in an office environment. Two volunteers from Randstad “have been very instrumental in making this a comfortable transition. They are like my big sisters.”

She said she wants to continue to pay back her employer with exemplary performance. “I’ve been so blessed with this opportunity.” Ultimately, she said, she hopes to enter the ministry.

The woman has a message for employers that are in a position to hire someone with a background similar to hers: “Don’t miss out on an opportunity to make a huge impact in the world. Show her that she is worth more than just her body.” People who have overcome difficult circumstances “may not know all the etiquette. But they are extremely resilient and will shoot for the moon.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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