Why It Matters In the Discussion of a Harassment-Free Workplace

As HR professionals, most of us have spent the last few months grappling with the same issue in our workplaces.

What should HR be doing now and in the future to promote a safe and harassment-free workplace?

We are currently living in an environment where HR’s role is being scrutinized in regards to addressing employee concerns (particularly when it comes to sexual harassment). Accordingly, HR departments have been challenged by the business community and even in some cases, by the internal HR community itself, to examine policies, reevaluate training initiatives, and improve accountability measures. However, when discussing these challenges, there is one key component that is often missed — All HR departments are not created equal.

There is a perception that most organizations have a centrally located, fully staffed and well-resourced HR department. Or, if their HR departments are not fully staffed, they have appropriately outsourced any missing functions accordingly. Not to mention the misconception that all employees know where their HR department is located and that someone will always be available to hear their concerns. That line of thinking is troublesome. Here are some of the responses I’ve received from colleagues in various industries on how their HR departments are structured:

-My HR is 6 hours away. We have a part-time HR liaison that is here to answer any questions and relay them to our central HR if she cannot answer them. She’s here part-time, so you have to catch her when you can. She is also off every Monday. 

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-HR is at the main site and they have someone at our site a few hours a week.

-My HR is off-site at a city government building. It is a three person operation for over 200 employees.

In order to start to address employee concerns, we must first understand organizational structures.

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Specifically the structure, or lack thereof of an HR department. We can no longer begin the conversation about ways to address harassment in the workplace with the assumption of a complete HR department. Realizing that all HR departments are not created equal will help employees, stakeholders and leaders to better address sexual harassment as well as other workplace issues. Here’s why:

Employees Know Where to Go
Some HR departments have the functions of sexual harassment training and reporting outsourced. Others might assign resources to have HR available at various work sites. Whatever the particular structure, it is important to understand what, ‘report it to HR’ actually means to an employee. Bonus: Check to ensure that reporting information is clearly mentioned when onboarding new employees. What organizations want to avoid is a culture where employees, ‘do not know where to voice their concerns.’

A recent New York Times piece described an employees reluctance for reporting at a Silicon Valley firm: ‘the human resources department has no interest in helping the employee — or there is no such department at all. This is common in Silicon Valley, where companies grow so fast — and where disdain for slow-moving bureaucracy runs so deep – that human resources officials often serve only to recruit employees.’

Employers Will See Where HR Investment and/or Support is Needed
As employee complaints, issues and concerns become more and more dynamic, organizations increasingly look to HR. However, I was surprised to learn of an instance in which an HR department didn’t exist at all.

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In our current climate, not having a place for employees to discuss their concerns is flat out unacceptable. Now that more employees are feeling more empowered to report, more organizations should be paying attention to the structure of their HR departments. Moreover, the outcomes of many harassment complaints commonly include the suggestion of additional training. With that in mind, there should also be an evaluation of how the organization looks from an HR standpoint. Who is going to be delivering the training? HR?

Even with the presence of a traditional HR department, informal power hierarchies are a factor in making it difficult to report. One can only imagine the power hierarchies when HR is not present in the organization.

It’s likely most discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace begin with the assumption that most organizations have a semblance of a traditional HR structure. In today’s environment, a deeper and more thoughtful discussion can be had when we assume just the opposite.

Posted by Daniel Nicolas

Daniel is an HR knowledge seeker with a passion for community. I've had a pretty cool journey. Proud Seminole, Member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Tennis Player, Haitian-American and soon-to-be husband.

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