Women are a human resources nightmare.
The national conversation has once again turned to women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Nearly two weeks ago, the New York Times and the New Yorker published allegations of rape and sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein against actresses in Hollywood and beyond. These experiences go back decades, and they are often, but not exclusively, related to women who met Weinstein in a professional capacity and felt pressured, out of fear for their safety and their careers, to comply.
In other words, these women were harassed in the workplace.
Earlier this year, Susan Fowler blew the whistle on sexism and harassment at Uber. Fowler and her colleagues complained to Uber’s leadership about the culture of harassment within the organization, and they were routinely dismissed by everybody — including the HR department.
It was only when Fowler wrote a viral blog post detailing her complaints that Uber got serious. The company hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to launch an investigation to understand why so many women had such bad things to say about their employee experience. The report was damning, and more than 20 people were fired for inappropriate conduct, including allegations of sexual harassment and management ignoring multiple reports of sexist behavior and harassment. Former CEO Travis Kalanick, who was not accused of harassment himself but reportedly did nothing to stop it when allegations came in, as well as other sexist and toxic behavior, resigned under pressure from investors.
That could’ve been a watershed moment for women in the workforce, but it wasn’t. That’s because corporate America, and human resources in particular, don’t care about women. They care about minimizing risk to enhance the value of a brand, which ultimately leads to greater revenue and stronger profits.
In short, nobody cares about women. Once the shock-and-awe of Harvey Weinstein is over, very little will change for the average worker in America. I know this because I'm a 20-year veteran of human resources. In that time, I worked at big organizations like Pfizer, Kemper Insurance, and Monsanto. I left my corporate job in 2007 and started writing and speaking about HR in an attempt to transform the entire function. I haven’t done a very good job because HR still sucks.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but very few people are shocked to hear that sexism and harassment still happen in the modern work environment. Even fewer are shocked to hear that HR did nothing about it. The lack of outrage at HR, in particular, breaks my heart. We should know better. There should be consequences.
Part of me is angry, and part of me feels sorry for my former friends and colleagues who work in the trenches of HR. How do you help organizations attract and retain great talent while also doing your job and protecting the company from lawsuits when something goes horribly wrong? The answer is that you can't.
And as an employee, what do you do if you’re being sexually harassed at work? The sad answer is that despite what your work orientation may tell you, going to HR is by no means a surefire way to stop this kind of behavior. As women in the workplace, we have to use whatever resources are at our disposal to take matters into our own hands, whether it’s quitting, forming a union or affinity group, or going viral with a Medium post.
Human resources corresponds to shrinking union membership in America
I believe that human resources is designed to fail women who come forward about harassment. To understand why, it’s important to look at why HR is there in the first place.
At its core, HR exists to protect the company against employee-related risks. Shareholders and investors want executive leadership teams to improve productivity while keeping wages low. Business owners and leaders need a way to monitor and manage employee activities while retaining distance from the workforce. And most bosses want to keep their hands clean and outsource the emotional labor of managing people to someone else.
That's where HR comes into the picture. We once had unions as mediators and guardians of the workforce. They were concerned about issues such as fair pay, health insurance, and safety compliance. The rise of the modern human resources department corresponds to shrinking union membership in America. Someone had to respond to worker needs and to keep the trains running on time. It’s an unglamorous job with matriarchal overtones, which is why managers don’t want to do it. Cue the modern HR lady.
So in my experience, HR departments in America operate under a dubious mandate: Keep workers engaged and happy, but make sure nobody sues the company. Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible.
It's no wonder people like Susan Fowler and her colleagues complained numerous times to Uber's HR department and felt like they didn't have an employee advocate. They didn’t.
So how can HR change in the wake of the Uber sexual harassment scandal? I'm not sure it matters. Instead, I think women need to look to other places for solutions knowing that HR often isn’t on their side.
Channel your inner Susan Fowler when someone sexually harasses you
If you've ever been the recipient of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in the workplace, I'm very sorry. On behalf of my fellow human resources professionals, I want to apologize. You're not the first victim. We've been told about the behavior, and the truth is pretty simple: We can't fire this person because most of the time, we don’t have the power to do it.
Our job in HR is to retain the best and brightest talent and also to handle employee complaints. When these conflict and the best and brightest talent is the harasser, HR is incentivized to protect the harasser. And sometimes the person in power might not be the best and brightest, but they're still in power. They win. Susan Fowler loses.
At most companies, HR is an administrative department that has no real authority beyond our four walls. At our best, we are business partners and advisers. At our worst, we are babysitters and police officers. Final employment decisions rest with the leaders who truly run your company.
Yes, some human resources teams and organizations do get it right and quickly move into action when women voice their concerns around sex discrimination and sexual harassment. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that American companies paid out $40.7 million in 2016 to remedy charges of sexual harassment, meaning these were payments to women who went to HR to report incidents and were ignored. What that tells me is that HR must do a better job of being a partner and adviser to women at work, too.
Knowing that HR is messed up, there is something women who are harassed at work can do: Follow Susan Fowler’s example. Follow the chain of command at your company. Report the incident. Then leverage your network and start your job search.
Once you find a new job, be like Courtney Love and warn the world about Harvey Weinstein. Use the internet to tell every single human being on the planet about your experience. Leave a review on Glassdoor, start an anonymous blog, or even create a Twitter account and share bits and pieces of your story in a tweetstorm. Find ways to tell prospective candidates to apply elsewhere.
Nobody should have to quit. Many women can't. But if you have the resources to channel your inner Susan Fowler, do it. Stand up for yourself, leave a positive legacy for others, and get the hell out of there.
Unionize without unionizing or focus on professional development
Some women aren’t in a position to quit their jobs. They can’t freely look for work, either, due to the time and stress involved in the interview process. Some people depend on their paycheck and can’t afford to rock the boat. Going to work and paying attention to their personal lives is just about enough.
HR needs to work harder to protect those employees from hostile work environments. But I also think people can look to the past for lessons on how to rally around one another and create supportive environments at work. Change the system that weighs you down.
You don't need to be a steelworker from Pittsburgh or a coal miner from West Virginia to form a like-minded affinity group and leverage the collective brainpower of your team. If you feel like your interests aren't being looked after, don't wait for HR to solve your problem. Find your peers, share your concerns, and craft a plan to tackle the work-related issues that are plaguing your lives.
You can also focus on continuous learning. One study found that more than 60 percent of employers offer some form of tuition assistance, but only 1 million workers take advantage of the benefit. I’m not good at math, which is why I worked in HR, but that’s not even 1 percent of the full-time adult workforce. If you’re a low-income worker who never had a chance to finish your education, use your tuition assistance plan. It’s part of your overall compensation package. Make that a priority. You’re literally leaving money on the table if you ignore this benefit.
College and career-related programs aren’t just about applied knowledge, either. Training programs offer networking opportunities and the ability to connect with other like-minded individuals in your community. If HR lets you down, find comfort and support from peers. Be a lifelong learner with the goal of doing more than getting a seat at the table. Blow up the table.
Finally, don't let HR off the hook
It doesn't have to be like this. If you hate your HR team and wonder why it's staffed with ruinously empathetic people who seem nice but can't get anything done, maybe it's time for you to join the team.
I’ve told you how to quit your job and take matters into your own hands, but I also know that human resources teams around America need your help. If you have sales and marketing skills, you would work well with recruiters. If you’re analytical by nature, there are talent- and benefits-related roles that would be right up your alley.
As someone who worked in HR, I have a simple message: Your best defense against hegemonic corporate power run amok is to unite with your fellow workers and have a zero-tolerance policy for your life. Stop waiting for the invisible hand of HR to solve the problem of workplace harassment. It’s never going to happen. If your job sucks or your boss harasses you, quit that job and get a new one. Preferably, get a new job in HR. Or join an affinity group that can back you up. Make life better for yourself and the next person who faces your unfortunate situation.
Laurie Ruettimann is a former human resources leader turned speaker, writer, and entrepreneur. She owns a consultancy that offers a wide array of services to HR departments and technology companies. Ruettimann is also the founder of GlitchPath, an early-stage startup focused on project management and business insights.