Is HR empowered to address sexual harassment or any other workplace issues?

Following the reports from female employees at Uber, of their horrific experience, some thoughts and questions come to mind. There is enough analysis out there. Some surmised about HR’s complicity. It is striking that all of them seem to be surprised that HR didn’t do anything other than holding perfunctory meetings and providing banal advice.

From the perspective of an employee, an industry member, a senior manger and a woman in the tech industry, I’m surprised by the surprise. The industry owes a huge debt of gratitude to women like Susan Fowler for shining the light on issues like these. All of this is surfacing tacit assumptions about HR and making us pause and rethink the role of HR; not that this is the first time this has happened in this industry or any other.

By conventional standards, HR is a supporting function. Or at least that’s my experience. Academically, it may or may not be correct. But that’s how I have seen it function. It makes policies but has very limited ability to enforce them. At best, HR has soft influence on co-operative executives (the ones with wisdom and maturity). it is also a function that has a higher number of women than men. This is an anecdotal observation gained directly and indirectly through connections in professional network. Regardless, I’m willing to venture that Uber’s HR dept has enough women as well. So by conventional standards it should have been easier for HR to empathize with Fowler and other female employees of Uber who sought help from HR. But according to the article below, they felt unsupported and ignored. There is a possibility, that, HR, at least the rank and file, are torn between empathizing with their gender and not wanting to appear biased. There may be other reasons as well.

One could venture some obvious reasons — could be that they just don’t care or that they don’t have the ability to empathize or have the capacity for compassion etc etc. However, there may also be a few other non-obvious reasons —

  1. Lack of empowerment
  2. Mis-aligned incentives
  3. Eroding objectivity or unconscious bias
  4. Presence of power plays (covert or overt)

Lack of empowerment — That they were told that their job is to support the business not to promote human rights or advocate for social causes. This rarely means supporting the employee.

Mis-aligned incentives — Are HR rank and file rewarded for a healthy work place culture? Your guess is as good as mine. Are they penalized for it? I venture to guess…no. Traditionally, HR has worked (supported) by softly influencing executives, business leaders and line managers. But it has no ability or authority to take corrective actions. Because of this, rank-and-file HR members become spectators in situations where one would expect them to be playing the leading role.

Eroding objectivity — Women in HR are somewhat duped by business leaders and managers in “situations”. Let’s face it, no one with intelligence worth a dime will antagonize HR. In fact some (strategically) purport to be enthusiastic champions and supporters of HR, leading rank-and-file HR people to sub-consciously become a biased party rather than an objective judge.

Presence of power plays — It is highly likely that most HR situations pit a rank and file female HR manager (advocating on behalf of an employee) against a powerful business executive. It will require a lot of courage to stick one’s neck out. Though, if this existed, one would expect some whistle-blower to come from HR. So this is mostly a conjecture at this point.

Lastly, it is indeed possible that HR cannot empathize with the employee especially when the complaint is against an exec or a line manager that HR has had great experience with, unless they are fastidious about taking “context” into account. There are different forces and under-currents when working as peers in an engineering team than when working as an HR person and a peer business leader (with dotted line reporting relationship).

Don’t get me wrong. I have tremendous amount of respect for the tight rope a HR person has to walk on. No employee ever thinks of HR when they are happy. So HR likely only sees dysfunctional scenarios and their lenses are colored by those experiences. There maybe danger of being de-sensitized or getting burned out or becoming jaded.

So what can HR do? Or what should HR do? Is it solely HR’s responsibility? Who can effect a cultural change? Who can inculcate good inclusive culture? How can HR be truly about people AND become a profit driver, not just a supporting function? There is research that diverse work force and an inclusive culture leads to better creativity which leads to more profitability. How can these become one of the primary indicators of profitability and if HR drove these indicators, would it become more empowered? That’s for another post.

References for this post:

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