Reporting Sexual Harassment: How to Regain Trust in Human Resources

There is no shortage of stories exposing the failures of human resources, especially when it comes to reporting sexual harassment.

Take, for example, the story of Susan Fowler. On the very first day of her job at Uber, she found herself fending off sexual advances from her supervisor. She reported the offense to HR, which claimed it was his first.

Later, she found out that many of her colleagues had made similar complaints about the same individual with no consequences. It was only by going public that she put pressure on Uber to fire her harasser and the others who enabled him.

Then there’s the story of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook. In response to complaints from employees across the country, Easterbrook established a hotline for employees to call to report sexual harassment, which is rife within the restaurant industry.

However, Easterbrook himself was found to have been having multiple consensual sexual relationships with employees over whom he held power. What is more, he apparently enabled a culture in which advancement depended upon the personal favoritism of HR managers, favoritism which sometimes included sexual relationships.

Why the Distrust?
There are good reasons why many employees, including, according to one survey, 70% of tech workers, do not trust human resources. Many employees feel that going to HR will lead to negative repercussions for them, and none for those whose behavior has aggrieved them. Some deem incidents too minor, which can create a workplace culture that enables harassment and abuse. Others don’t go to HR because of negative previous experiences.

These problems can fester and lead to issues with retention, productivity, and engagement at work. They even make companies less innovative. So, how do you know if employees at your organization trust HR? And if they don’t, what can you do about it?

Sexual Harassment – HR as a Safe Place

Assessing and Building Trust
Some measures will both help you assess whether your employees trust HR and build trust. For example, you might consider having a third party administer an anonymous survey. A survey will give you some indication of whether or not your employees trust HR, but it will also help demonstrate that the company is making a trustworthy HR department a priority. In the survey, consider including requests for feedback on what employees think HR can do to earn their trust.

Foster Relationships with Employees
Building relationships can also help you gauge whether or not they trust HR at the same time as it improves trust. It often pays to reach out proactively to employees before they need to report misbehavior.

Consider having an open-door policy. Make an effort to respond quickly to employees. Making yourself accessible will make employees feel more comfortable coming forward with complaints.

Make the Company More Transparent
In some cases, transparency might mean taking accountability for past HR mistakes. Conducting an audit of complaints and making its result public (while keeping all personal information anonymous) can improve employees’ perceptions of HR. Also, be clear with your employees that HR is not the same as an employee advocate.

Encourage Leadership to Be Trustworthy
One of the biggest factors that affects trust in HR is trust in leadership. The leaders at your company need to demonstrate that they have employees’ concerns at heart.

Efforts on the part of leadership ought to go much deeper than offering perks at work: more substantive efforts, like increasing compensation or ensuring opportunities for professional advancement, make a bigger impact on employees’ perceptions. If the employees trust leadership, they’ll be more likely to trust HR with their complaints.

Sexual Harassment – Addressing Policy and Complaints

Hold People Accountable
Most importantly, HR professionals need to create consequences for misbehavior in the office. On the one hand, sometimes HR professionals are hesitant to reprimand high-performers in the office for their misbehavior or are simply unable to do so because of lack support from leadership.

However, enabling a culture of misbehavior is not only immoral: it will affect retention, productivity, and engagement at work. While confrontations like this might not always be supported by leadership, they are in the company’s best interests. If leadership resists creating consequences for poor behavior, make the case to them that it is in the company’s best interests both for legal reasons and for their own bottom line.


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