With all the talk about sexual harassment in the news, it’s only natural that HR folks would start talking about what went wrong at companies that are being rocked to their foundations. Where was HR? Why didn’t they step in and do their job? I’ve been following a twitter conversation among colleagues who I respect, and among other things they’ve been touching on the age old question: who’s side is HR on? Whose side should they be on? Protecting the organization or the individual?
I’ve mentioned before that I came to HR from an operations background, so it can be easy for me to think in terms HR’s role as supporting the company’s interest. On the other hand, the longer I’m in HR, the more I see how much influence I have to make life better for individual employees. And pondering this seeming dichotomy, I’m struck by the meaningless of it. Shouldn’t HR’s goal be to find the win for everyone? If I support the organization, I’ll support policies that make for an engaged workforce because engagement leads to productivity and the company wins. If I support the employees, I’ll support policies in the employees best interest. And guess what? That will still lead to high levels of engagement and productivity. Either way, when the employees win the company wins, and when the company wins the employees win. All ships rise together.
When it comes to sensitive topics like sexual harassment, some people might see supporting the company over the individual as sweeping the harassment under the rug or pushing the employee out. That view is short-sighted at best. The more you sweep under the rug, the more that rug starts looking lumpy, and people start to trip up on all that hidden dirt. You leave your organization open to litigation and loss of branding that can be impossible to recover from. Not only that, but that dirt becomes the elephant in the room that everyone knows about but doesn’t acknowledge. It hurts engagement and productivity. Even if you can get past the part about wronging the harassed employee, you are still not supporting the organization.
When you take reports of harassment seriously and investigate appropriately even when the accused is at the top of the organization, you do right by the victim, but you also do right by the company. You protect the company from litigation and negative publicity (because we’ve all seen – the publicity of ignoring accusations is much worse than the publicity of dealing with them), and you prove to your employees that the place they work is a company that does the right thing even when it’s hard. They will trust you when other hard things come up, knowing that you operate aboveboard.
In the end, I can’t choose a side. To do right by the company I have to do right by the employee. When I do right by the employee, I’m doing right be the company at the same time. I had a boss once whose motto was ‘doing the right thing is always the right thing to do’, and all of his business decisions followed this axiom. I’ve come to realize that in HR, doing the right thing is not always easy, but it’s always right.