What do harassment, Valentine's Day and HR have to do with each other?

Perhaps my view is “Pollyannaish”

This post is not exactly about Valentine’s Day, nor is it specifically about harassment, as you will discover as you read further. It is more about the profession of HR. This post is a repeat of one I wrote last year at this time. However, today is a good time to be aware, especially in light of #MeToo. As an article in the Chicago Tribune said, these are difficult times for employers. You may want to follow the advice of Rebecca B. Canary-King, who wrote Love is in the Air? Practical Tips for Dealing with Workplace Relationships.  This post, however, is more about a response to a plaintiff attorney’s view of HR. I hope you find that interesting as well.
On Valentine’s Day, of all days, I wrote a blog post called Who do you report harassment to if the harasser is the CEO? That post sparked some interesting responses for a couple of reasons. The most notable response came from, Chris McKinney, a Texas attorney who represents employees in EEO cases. He paid me a compliment when he said:

It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article….The effort will almost certainly fail.”

Differing points of view

I respect Mr. McKinney’s point of view, but he has a view of HR that I don’t ascribe to. He says that the reason HR will fail in helping employees with claims of harassment is that “HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices.” I disagree. HR has only one master if you will, and that is the company. Some companies have Ombudsmen, but that is not the stated role of HR. It is the mistaken role of HR. That is why I tell my clients and my students that they have to be upfront with people if anyone comes to them with information that can damage the company, and they wish that information to be kept confidential. An ethical and effective HR professional cannot make that claim.

“Sometimes that means that management has to be exposed and gotten rid of in the process.”

McKinney also says that HR has to defend management. There I also have to disagree. HR has to defend the company from damage. Sometimes that means that management has to be exposed and gotten rid of in the process. No individual should be allowed, regardless of position, to destroy the enterprise that supports so many lives. Their behavior needs to be corrected or they need to be gone, even the CEO.

“HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role”


McKinney is correct when he says “HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. HR is underappreciated in many, many organizations. Pressures are put on the HR professional from both sides. Employees provide numerous challenges when they have expectations that HR is their champion. Management provides challenges when they use the power of their position to force the HR professional to do something they know is ethically, and perhaps, morally wrong. HR professionals get put in ethical dilemmas that sometimes results in sliding ethics. The poor single mother HR manager who is being forced to choose between her job and her ethics gets my sympathy when her ethics slide for the moment. It is tough to face the prospect of losing a job and not putting food on the table versus letting a manager get away with some harassment just this one time.

Issue of Trust

“I have known some HR people who were not trustworthy”

There are posts all the time about not being able to “trust HR.” Employees are encouraged by other employees not to go to HR because you cannot “trust” them. These are the people that Mr. McKinney represents and they need him. I will be the first to admit the quality of HR people runs the gamut. I have known some HR people who were not trustworthy because they had their priorities in the wrong places. I have known some HR people who talked behind others backs; cheated on their expense reports; had affairs with employees and more. But those are individuals, not the profession. I have known people who made mistakes out of ignorance and others that made mistakes intentionally as a form of revenge. But these people are the minority. The rest of HR does good work in an often tough situation.

My view of HR

“a business manager whose role is HR”

The role of the HR professional, in my opinion, is to make sure the company (organization) is successful as it can be, by having the best employees it can have, with the best management team possible, where everyone is treated fairly and ethically. Everyone has an accountability to make the company successful, and those that do not contribute to that effort need to have their “feet held to the fire” regardless of position within the company. I don’t view myself as an HR manager; I view myself as a business manager whose role is HR. I take that role seriously.
This may be a “Pollyannaish” view. My friend Steve Browne always exhorts HR professionals to be positive about HR.  I think the best way to do that is to approach HR in this manner. Sometimes that requires that you call out managers for harassment. Sometimes it may require you report the CEO’s behavior to the EEOC. Sometimes it requires you to terminate poor performers of all ilk.
It is not an easy job, but it can be a rewarding one.

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