HR Has a Critical Role in Stopping Sexual Harassment

group of workers in a conference room

Ed Hasan believes sexual harassment training is important; indeed, it’s one of the services his consulting company, Kaizen Human Capital, offers to businesses that request his help. But many times, he said, these businesses need much more than training. They need a candid, exhaustive look at the culture of their organization, whether it has a problem with sexual harassment or is trying to prevent one.

“You want to be careful. You don’t want to just treat the symptoms—you want to get to the real core,” said Hasan, Ed.D., an instructor in Georgetown University’s Master's in Human Resources Management program in Washington, D.C. “Sexual harassment is something that is indicative of a deeper, systemic issue that needs to be evaluated and addressed; you can’t just throw training at it and hope it goes away.”

That something is a culture—characterized by power discrepancies and varying degrees of intimidation—that enables sexual harassment to occur.

Out of the Shadows

The #MeToo movement, a grassroots campaign that brought sexual harassment out of the shadows, started in October 2017 shortly after sexual assault allegations were made against movie magnate Harvey Weinstein.

Because of the publicity surrounding sexual harassment, human resources departments should expect to see more reporting of complaints, Mirande Valbrune, an employment lawyer and author of “#MeToo: A Practical Guide,” wrote in Forbes. She said employee policies and training should be updated to include more emphasis on gender identity, sexual orientation, and “bystander empowerment,” which helps employees advocate for colleagues facing harassment.

“The cumulative effect of sexual harassment is extremely damaging,” Wellesley College President Paula Johnson told Nature magazine in June when a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that sexual harassment was driving talented women out of research careers. Johnson is a member of the committee that wrote the report. “It’s critical to move beyond the notion of legal compliance to really addressing culture.”

Taking Ownership

In his reviews of companies, Hasan looks at both the culture and the many subcultures in an organization. While a company’s prevailing culture may be positive, it may not be experienced that way by some employees who have to deal with a subculture fostered by a particular department or individual. It is Hasan’s job to shine a light on these subcultures.

“And the only way to do this,” he said, “is to peel back the onion as much as possible.”

To make a useful assessment and prescribe an intervention, he must have the unwavering support of the people running the organization. Just saying they want to improve is not enough.

“Senior leaders need to hold themselves accountable and demonstrate that change starts with them” Hasan said. “If leadership doesn’t buy in or take ownership then it is less likely that any intervention will produce sustainable results.”

The same applies to human resources. An HR department has multiple responsibilities—to the company, its employees, the public, and a variety of other stakeholders. But in many of the recent sexual harassment cases, human resources departments were accused of taking what appears to be the easy route, looking the other way and aligning themselves too closely with management. Of course, this simply perpetuates an organization’s toxic culture.

The other option is tougher, at least in the short run. It requires people in HR to have the courage to make unpopular decisions, even when the easy choice might have seemed more beneficial to their careers.

“There’s a huge responsibility in the human resources profession to own it, and step up even when it’s uncomfortable,” Hasan said. “HR is often the first line of defense.”

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