The “MeToo” wave was supposed to change things. While it probably helped to raise awareness, what practical consequences has it had in the corporate world? Until now, research has paid very little attention to how Human resources deal with sexual harassment cases. In order to help fill this gap, we met with seven HR managers from very different companies… to come up with findings that are unfortunately very similar.
A hand on the shoulder, a word lower than the other, a rumor flying around, an attempt at blackmail. “Time’s up!” shouted Hollywood in 2018. But sexual harassment at work didn’t stop with MeToo. The proof is a recent study (Fondation Jean Jaurès, 2019) undertaken in five European countries (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom) reveals that 60% of European women surveyed are concerned, including 21% in the last 12 months. The finding remains alarming and, so far, nothing surprising. But if the question of the existence of this type of harassment is fortunately no longer being asked, the question of the response of companies is unfortunately still not being asked enough: what actions are they putting in place to protect their employees?
In the face of silence
In France, the employer must “ensure the health and safety of its employees by implementing preventive actions, information, and training”, the public service says. He must also draw up a single risk assessment document and, in the event of legal proceedings, must be able to provide proof that everything has been done to prevent this from happening. The framework has been established but in practice? In practice, academic research highlights the difficulty of recording cases. The taboo still weighs on people’s consciences: a study conducted in 2015 established that more than 7 out of 10 women victims had not reported the event, mainly out of fear for their careers. And while advice is given by researchers, human resources (HR) professionals have never been asked about their experience.
It is this gap that we wanted to fill. We conducted an exploratory qualitative study of semi-structured interviews with seven HR professionals from different professions (senior HR manager, former HR manager, board member, social relations manager, recruiter, diversity and inclusion manager). All have varying degrees of experience (from 2 to 13 years) and work in companies of different sizes (1,000 to 270,000 employees) in industries as diverse as construction, banking, food delivery, online services, video games, and retail.
Don’t talk too loud
And our survey began with a surprise: very few HR people know the procedure to follow in their organization and the possible means of action or prevention in the case of sexual harassment. When asked how they typically respond, many say, “we listen to the victim.” A good starting point for the employee, the issue is primarily psychological. But of the seven HR people interviewed, only two mention, for example, getting the harasser away from the victim. However, the stakes are also high for the company, which will have a hard time keeping its employees if nothing is done. Absenteeism, distraction, decreased commitment and productivity are all warning signs of an early departure.
Among the possible means of action, we think of training. Employees, managers, and even HR are unequally prepared for such situations. But even this subject is problematic in the company: several professionals interviewed fear… its harmful effects! What if the training made people think that such an event had already occurred? What if it also fueled mistrust among employees? Encouraging people to speak out also means taking the risk that cases that have been kept in the shadows will come to light. After a training session on the subject, “the number [of cases] exploded,” said one HR manager interviewed. What is certain is that when this type of training is done, it is already too late,” said another manager. In all companies, budgets are tight. So we don’t do unnecessary training. If my company had to do training tomorrow, I imagine it would be because something happened. Clearly, it’s better to cure than to prevent…
To prevent the sexual harassment, “an unnecessary expense”
The increase in reporting after training may suggest that employees are speaking out because of the training. They may have learned, for example, that French law requires that any company with more than 250 employees designate an employee (HR or not) to act as a referent in this area. This is a valuable link that is rarely put forward in companies. It is therefore important to train all employees. To reinforce their level of alert if a case occurs, and to send a strong message about the company’s position on the subject. However, for HR, this means making the management team aware of the relevance of such training, despite the possible increase in the number of cases in the short term.
Communicating internally on the subject is a delicate matter for HR. It’s sometimes a matter of timing. It’s hard to say to a new employee “welcome, welcome and then, by the way, if you’re ever attacked…”, notes one manager: one of the challenges for an HR team is to ensure the well-being and sense of security of employees. “One of the challenges for an HR team is to ensure the well-being and sense of security of employees. We’ve already said that we should do small awareness sessions, but if we start talking about it, the teams will say, ‘What’s going on? Why are we talking about this? Other feared reactions: those who are disillusioned, the critics of “too much communication” who, according to our witnesses, are older than the average employee; and those who see it as nothing more than hypocrisy, a pretext to make themselves look good.
But even more than fear, HR managers face a lack of support from top management. In one company we interviewed, prevention training was considered “an unnecessary expense”; in another, the harasser was considered “a good asset to the company”. For decision-makers, the value of performance is sometimes ultimately higher than the performance of values…
“Let it go”
However, the impetus given by the company’s top management is a determining factor in the application of the measures taken (when they are taken). However, the testimonies we gathered speak of managers who are not interested in the subject and who need to be convinced again and again. The HR people we interviewed report a certain mistrust on the part of managers about sexual harassment complaints and the fear of consequences for the company’s reputation. One former HR even assured us, “I think [senior leaders] show both doubt and denial, probably for fear of being reported without evidence and media pressure.” Another HR shared with us the political dimension that a complaint can take on when it involves a senior executive. She was once asked to ‘let it go’, not to make waves.
Discouraged, the HR people interviewed feel that they are alone in carrying these values and sensibilities. All the more so because they are isolated. They are not surrounded by lawyers or legal experts for the legal aspects. This isolation is also emotional in the face of events that do not leave one indifferent. Not to mention the extra workload that a complaint can represent. In these cases, the support of another person, a colleague or a manager, had a significant effect on them. In one of the companies surveyed, HR staff always work in pairs during their survey interviews: “It’s important to be able to talk about it with the other HR person”. Others can count on a benevolent manager: “It wasn’t a happy time. The atmosphere was heavy. But at the time, I was lucky enough to have a manager who called me immediately. He told me, ‘You tell me what you need’.”
What is a sexual harassment?
If sexual harassment is not always well taken into account in companies, it is also due to a cruel lack of expertise on the subject. Many HR departments are not able to correctly recognize sexual harassment, which the Labor Code defines as “any form of serious pressure (even if not repeated) exercised with the real or apparent aim of obtaining a sexual act, for the benefit of the perpetrator or a third party. Many believe that it can only be a physical act. “If it’s physical to me, it’s very serious,” said one of the HR specialists we met. In another company, a prominent example was reported to us. “The man was staring at women. He asked intrusive questions. In a car, he put his hand on an employee’s thigh, touched her stomach.” Verdict: the HR involved concluded that the man had “not assaulted her,” and that “the benefit of the doubt” was given. More than half of the HR people surveyed believe that such cases do not occur in their company, and that the company culture protects them from this type of behaviour.
Another indication of their lack of expertise was their bias about the gender of victims. All of the HR staff interviewed took it a bit too naturally that victims were necessarily women. One of the managers interviewed even believed that the under-representation of women in her company may be the reason for the low incidence of harassment! A recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that the gender difference is not as great as one might think: “Overall, 8.2% of employed women have experienced violence and sexual harassment during their working lives, compared to 5% of men.
However, not all HR people take ownership of the topic in the same way. It is often not considered a specific area of HR work. It is either casual or non-existent. So much so that they are not always sure what exists within their organization. One looked it up in front of us: “We have an ethics charter, internal rules, and it seems to me… I can look quickly… It seems to me that there is something about sexual harassment in the ethics charter. I saw it not long ago…” But after reading aloud the section on moral harassment, he exclaimed, “Yes!…. Oh no! I confused bullying with sexual harassment.”
For some professionals, compliance with legal requirements is sufficient. They are not proactive in this regard. “It’s something that happens in the company. But investigating [a sexual harassment case] is not part of our responsibility,” even one HR person blurts out, for fear of overstepping his duties.
We did survey a small sample. But some of the managers interviewed work in companies with more than 100,000 employees. The policies and actions deployed in these organizations are as disappointing as they are unstructured. How can we be surprised that these behaviors are still prevalent in companies?