HR Can’t Fix Sexual Harassment. Change Must Come From The Top

Contributor: Jim Champy
Posted: December 13, 2017


The flood of recent sexual-harassment cases and other forms of bad behavior in corporate settings raises some difficult questions: where was the human resources - HR - organization? Did HR know what was going on and did it try to do something about it?  Isn’t HR supposed to be the guardian of good corporate values and the protector of the people?

The unfortunate answer to these questions - with apologies to all those HR professionals who labor on behalf of an organization’s people - is that HR may not be capable of addressing these problems.

Most HR functions were designed to handle administrative processes: recruiting, hiring, onboarding, performance reviews, compensation. More advanced HR organizations have become proficient in learning and career development. But few are equipped or positioned to handle the difficult challenges of really bad behavior, especially when that behavior comes from a senior executive - or a faculty member at a university.

HR is also aligned with a company’s senior executive team and may not act independently. Therefore, other mechanisms for change may be required.

Addressing issues of sexual-harassment and the breaking of cultural norms requires visibility and action at the top of an organization. Nothing will change until that happens.

Why The Top

Serious psychological research has shown that victims of sexual harassment refrain from reporting incidences because they are perplexed with what’s happened and feel threatened. They are living in fear - often times of harming their career.

It won’t work to tell a victim that she or he must go through some line of command. Their immediate supervisor may have known about the perpetrator's bad behaviors and done nothing - maybe the supervisor was the perpetrator! Or more likely, the supervisor may just not know what to do.

Whatever the case, the victim must have a clear path to a safe place at the top of an organization where she or he will be heard and where they can expect something will be done.

Models That Work

I have seen two models that begin to address bad behavior.

The first is the establishment of an “Ombudsman.” This is a person to whom an aggrieved employee can bring any matter of concern. The Ombudsman typically reports to a very senior executive in the organization. Discussions are held in strict confidence, and it’s up to the Ombudsman to decide what action to take. The role takes a very wise person and a good listener.

I have seen this model work best in academic settings, where the Ombudsman is usually trusted to listen carefully and take the right action. That office must be a safe place.

A Corporate Setting Often Needs More

But when bad behavior is too prevalent -- like what happened at Uber under the leadership of its founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick -- word needs to quickly get to the top. It was one of Uber’s Board members, Arianna Huffington, who took on the challenge for Uber and its Board. She drove an outside assessment of what was happening and the discussions about corrective actions.

But not all bad behavior is as visible as it became at Uber. That’s why a standing, internal audit function is required for larger organizations. This audit function goes well beyond finance and risk: it also allows employees to bring concerns and incidents to a company’s Audit Committee, who in turn, are required to report their findings to the Board.

This may look like a lot of “overhead,” but I have seen these processes work. Every behavioral issue that got to a Board deserved that Board’s attention.

Culture Starts at the Top

That’s because culture and behavior begin at the top of an enterprise and its leadership - and a change to culture and behavior must be driven from the top. Boards have become more brave at forcing a change, even if that requires removing executives who cross a cultural or behavioral line. A Board and a company’s executives own the company’s culture.

But what if a company is privately held and does not have an active Board? This is can be difficult territory. Although most owners of private companies are benevolent, I have seen owners of private companies who abuse their people. When challenged, they often become defensive - and the likely outcome of a challenge is that the challenger is gone.

An Ombudsman might work in this setting if an owner agrees and is open to changing his or her behavior - but i must admit I don’t usually see the prognosis to be good. People who have been in positions of power for a long time typically don’t have much appetite for changing.

Beginning the Change

Taking on or removing the perpetrator of sexual harassment or other acts of bad behavior is often where change begins in an enterprise -- it serves as a clear signal from the top that the behavior will no longer be tolerated. But it’s just the beginning.

That must be followed by an extensive and repeated program of training. It may seem costly, but both words and actions are required. The costs of these processes are small, compared to potential human and reputational costs.

How Much Can Behavior Change

Peter Drucker and I used to argue a lot about how far cultural change can go. Peter believed that we could not change a culture or that it would take too long.

But I believe we can change behaviors in the workplace. Not many years ago, people sat at their desks smoking. I remember choking on other people’s smoke. That would never happen today. We should be able to accomplish the same for sexual harassment and other bad behaviors. They are equally deadly.