In Combatting Workplace Harassment, HR Must Strike the Right Balance

Shortcomings in creating a harassment-free workforce can often boil down to a company’s human resources department lacking the right priorities or leadership, according to two senior client partners at Korn Ferry.

May 7, 2019 – The #MeToo era may have laid bare how many organizations have a long way to go to create a harassment-free workforce, but recent weeks have shown where some of the toughest challenges lie: the human resources department.

In just a short period, the public has learned about issues that started with complaints to HR that ended up either unsatisfactorily resolved, tarnished the reputation of the firm, or both. Experts say that the broad issue comes down to HR not always having the right priorities or leadership. “HR can sometimes be too aggressive in being business partners and have lost sight of being employee advocates,” said Ron Porter, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The latest news spans industries and geographies. In the U.K., a mutual fund executive won a major cash settlement from her company after she refused to sign a gag order about her claims of sexual harassment at work. Then there was the board of an American firm that hired a CEO but wasn’t informed that he had an outstanding complaint of sexual harassment at his previous employer.

When the balance leans too much in favor of business results at the expense of employees, it can sometimes lead to problems. A hard-driving boss, for instance, may get results but may eventually cross the line of what is acceptable or even legal. That’s when things can go wrong. “Burning the cultural furniture today may get immediate results, but in the long term that isn’t good for the business,” said Mr. Porter. Again, it’s about balancing business needs with those of the employees. “It’s really about productivity over time.”

A Lack of Credibility

HR departments still lack credibility with business leaders, according to some experts. “HR doesn’t always get the respect it needs,” said Dési Kimmins, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s leadership development for EMEA. That, in turn, can influence how HR responds to events. HR, for example, may not take a firm enough stand on inappropriate workplace behavior if it doesn’t already have the credibility within the company, she said.

That lack of credibility is partly a problem of corporations failing to see the need for strong HR leadership. While the top executives always understand that it is essential to have top-notch talent in marketing and finance, that isn’t always the same for HR. “Organizations tend to underinvest in getting the right HR people,” said Ms. Kimmins.

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That common lack of understanding can lead a firm to skimp on HR salaries. And that’s a mistake because it could mean missing out on top talent. “Because of the complexity of the role and the skills required to manage stakeholders, it is essential to have high-quality people,” said Ms. Kimmins. Getting a strong HR leader can help address the matter. “If you have a really good HR leader, they will not suffer complacency or not having the right staff,” she said.

Over the past year or two, the #MeToo movement has sparked a nationwide conversation. In that time, one-third of executives have altered their actions to avoid behaviors that could be perceived as sexual harassment, according to data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Negative Effects

In addition, data analysis by FTI Consulting is showing the effects of inappropriate behavior and how businesses have dealt with the staffing and financial effects of the #MeToo movement.

FTI Consulting and Washington, D.C.-based women’s leadership firm Mine the Gap found that about 55 percent of the professional women surveyed said they are less likely to apply for a job and 49 percent are less likely to buy products or stock from a company with a public #MeToo allegation.


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Twenty-two percent of senior-level women and 20 percent of senior-level men, meanwhile, are concerned there could be an impending #MeToo incident at their organization. Senior-level women in technology and energy are concerned the most, at 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Among the senior-level men surveyed, those in technology and healthcare are the most concerned at 29 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

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The report also found that 28 percent of professional women said they have experienced or witnessed unwanted physical contact in the workplace in the last year, and nearly one-fifth said they have personally experienced it. In the past year, 34 percent of women in technology, 29 percent of women in energy, 27 percent of women in legal, 26 percent of women in healthcare and 25 percent of women in finance said they have experienced or witnessed unwanted physical contact at work.

A High Risk

Of the professional women surveyed who said they experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, 43 percent did not report the behavior, while 57 percent did report. Of the professional men surveyed who said they experienced or witnessed it, 31 percent did not report, while 69 percent did — a 12 percent difference from women. The top reasons for both professional women and men for not reporting was a concern for negative career impact, of being viewed as “difficult” and fear of retribution, though a significant gender gap exists for these answers.

“From all different viewpoints and industries, the research findings are stark: #MeToo at work is still happening, and employers that fail to take meaningful action to bring about change face a high risk of irrecoverable reputational and financial consequences,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a senior managing director in the strategic communications segment at FTI Consulting and a crisis communications and gender inclusion specialist. “The research shows that professional women will wield their purchasing power and their talent as leverage for change: nearly half of the women surveyed said they would be less likely to apply for a job, buy products or stock from a company with a public #MeToo issue.”

“For businesses to remain viable as the #MeToo movement continues to grow, entire industries need to look inward and overhaul policies, protocols, reporting mechanisms and trainings; evaluate cultures; take steps to fix gender imbalances; develop effective and transparent communications plans; and most importantly, hold aggressors, and those in a place to stop inappropriate behavior, accountable,” said Ms. Alexander.

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Jessica Grounds, co-founder of Mine the Gap, said that to stay competitive, companies must understand the different experiences women and men face daily at work. “#MeToo dynamics, difficult office cultures and leadership imbalance all impact the success of the key industries we surveyed,” she said “Awareness is the first step to addressing these challenges.”

Altered Behavior

New data from SHRM, meanwhile, found that one-third of executives have altered their actions to avoid behaviors that could be perceived as sexual harassment.


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These changes in behavior have resulted as executives witness how sexual harassment affects staff and the company bottom line. They rate the biggest impacts as:

  • Decreased morale (cited by 23 percent)
  • Decreased engagement (23 percent)
  • Decreased productivity (18 percent)
  • Increased hostile work environment (15 percent)
  • Increased turnover (13 percent)

And while 72 percent of employees said they were satisfied with their company’s efforts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, more than one-third still believe their workplace fosters sexual harassment.

“The fact that some workplace cultures still foster sexual harassment says there is more work to be done,” said Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of SHRM. “We need a rules-plus approach – organizations need policies and training, but it is the education piece that creates culture change. When you have employees who know how to define, identify and report sexual harassment, everyone can work together to root out sexual harassment in the workplace.”

A Troubling Trend

“As a cultural change metric in such a short time, having a third of executives report changed behavior is significant,” Mr. Taylor said. “Yet, we can’t let the pendulum swing too far. Organizations must be careful not to create a culture of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and we cannot tolerate other unintended consequences.”

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“One troubling trend is executives going as far as to not invite female colleagues on business trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles to avoid any situation that could be perceived incorrectly, thus reducing the opportunity for women,” he said.

Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector and its Million Women Mentors (MWM) Initiative as well as vice chairman of Diversified Search, said that the #MeToo movement impacts are significant and should serve as a wake-up call. “Ramifications are everywhere — from schools and organizations, employees and recruits, to the HR world and CHROs, boards of directors, CEOs, men and women, and every organization and institution and the media. Sexual harassment affects employees and the organization’s bottom line,” she said.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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