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Spate of sexual harassment allegations show why HR is business critical

In the span of a week and a half from Feb. 20 to March 1 three stories on sexual harassment at three major companies (Uber, Tesla and Sterling Jewelers) made national news.

Two of those stories were based in Silicon Valley. To top it off, Uber had an executive resign over sexual harassment allegations from his past job at Google in that timeframe unrelated to the accusations filed earlier by Susan Fowler.

Three is, as they say, a crowd. HR leaders may be shaking their heads as they read these stories, but it may also feel all too familiar. Young, agile companies (and companies that still view themselves as such) are unwilling to invest resources to address these problems, keeping diversity on the sidelines rather than a fully integrated business imperative, experts told HR Dive.

HR is business critical — a lesson Silicon Valley, in particular, is learning a little late.

The problems: Complacency, no accountability

After a slew of scandals in the 1980s and 1990s, sexual harassment policies were put into place and training programs taught leaders what was considered acceptable in the workplace.

"What has happened since then is kind of a sense of complacency," Deborah Munster, executive director of Diversity Best Practices, told HR Dive. Diversity Best Practices is an organization that supports organizations in creating diverse and inclusive cultures through consulting, solutions, research and tools.

Some of that complacency comes from cultural normalization. High profile leaders and celebrities are accused of harassment or abuse, but little comes out of it. Combine that with a growing sense of empowerment and willingness to speak up by those harassed, and a bizarre echo chamber is born. People complain, but nothing is done.

But at the organizational level, diversity initiatives tend not to be treated with the same seriousness as other business objectives. Company culture is hard to measure and even harder to control.

"We talk about culture as more of an emergent phenomenon it bubbles up from the bottom,"  Ursula Mead, CEO of InHerSight, a company rating site where women can share their experiences, told HR Dive. "It can happen without central coordination." 

Even when a company may espouse certain values, company culture will take a new direction if the actual experiences of employees are different. Unfortunately, as companies grow, it gets more difficult to accurately assess company culture, especially if all other goals are being met, Mead added. It's easy to assume that if other "company critical" goals are being met that the company culture is working, too.

"What we think is a really important thing for companies to measure is to make sure they are not just checking all of the boxes but that they are also measuring the reality of what women are experiencing at that company," Mead said.

Companies must ensure that what is being communicated internally (how employees are treated and responded to) is authentic with what is being communicated externally (values and goals). While 88% of the Diversity Best Practices companies have a diversity and inclusion mission, only 40% of companies surveyed have direct accountability against those values, Munster added.

"People will know it," Munster said. "Not just employees, but customers and candidates, too. Brand reputational risk is high."

The fixes: ERGs, holistic integration

Company culture flourishes from the first time a potential employee is spoken to by a recruiter and even before that, in many cases. The external brand has a key impact on internal operations. But a diverse culture tends to be considered an "add-on" or "a nice-to-have" rather than an embedded part of the business. For diversity programs to work, they have to have full buy-in immediately. 

Munster noted that employee resource groups (ERGs) have been an effective way for employers to get a pulse on what's really going on in an organization. ERGs work best as grassroots, inclusive efforts supported by leadership.

When Black Lives Matter began, some employee groups went to leaders and told leadership that company higher-ups needed to speak out about it, Munster noted.

"Many CEOs engaged with ERGs to hold town halls to talk about race issues in a way we haven't seen before," Munster said all in response to ERGs feeling that they had a line of communication with leadership, and that they would actually be heard.

HR can ensure that its department will listen to employee concerns, but it can also make other avenues available to employees who may feel comfortable expressing concerns in other ways. Effective alternatives include all-hands meetings and feedback apps that allow employees to remain anonymous.

External sources for employee feedback should also be allowed (such as Glassdoor, InHerSight and other such sites) as they may reveal whether employees truly felt a part of the culture.

"You are not just saying you are open to feedback ... you are also building in diverse channels to collect that critical feedback," Mead said.

Bottom line: HR is business critical — and some employers forget that

HR professionals know: The department has had to fight accusations of being boring, aimless or even antithetical to business. But these sex discrimination allegations make it even more apparent that HR is business-critical.

"There's an extreme disconnect between it being a business imperative and then actually treating it as such," Munster said. Diversity is given the kind of leeway that other bottom-line dollar generating business functions aren't. If a diversity initiative doesn't succeed, it's still given a sort of pass as if that's expected and is allowed to continue unchanged even when it's proven not to be effective, she added.

But even the best company culture can still sprout bad apples, which is why consistent measurement of company culture via feedback is key to ensuring any problems that arise aren't endemic, Mead noted. 

"Leadership needs to back and empower the HR team," she said. Just as leaders set performance expectations, they also set the tone for the culture.

Some companies depend too much on "there's no problem right now, so we don't need to fix anything" mentality, Munster said. But there could be problems in place that a small, homogenous group can't see which become promptly visible to a newcomer.

There's a business case for acting now: Companies that are proactive in addressing issues of diversity differentiate themselves in today's job market, Munster said. Making diversity initiatives part of the DNA of a company will ensure that they feel natural from the get-go, and employee happiness will remain high.

"The insights of the culture need to come from the women working there," Mead said. Otherwise, your company could wake up one day to a rather enlightening, public blog post from an employee.

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Filed Under: HR Management