Harassment cases show who the HR department really works for

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At the beginning of December, Joe Alexander suddenly left The Martin Agency, a prize-winning advertising house based in Richmond, Va. Alexander was the agency’s chief creative officer and had been lauded as one of the 100 advertising greats by an industry organization.

Ad types in Toronto may recall Alexander from his days here circa 1990, working for Chiat/Day on such accounts as the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo and Canadian Airlines International (R.I.P.). His career appears to have taken off like a rocket after that.

A week after his departure Adweek published a story documenting numerous allegations of sexual harassment, including those of an unnamed former Martin employee who accused Alexander of firing her because she rejected his sexual advances.

Another past employee, senior art director Daniela Montanez, told Adweek that she took her concerns about Alexander’s behaviour to human resources. “I was told to speak directly to Joe,” Montanez said. Another woman who had worked at the agency added that Alexander’s nickname was “HR Joe.”

Alexander denies the harassment charges. “The allegations you are reporting on are false,” he told Adweek.

The upheaval that has followed at the agency is another example of a problem that should send reverberations through corporate cultures everywhere. I’m not addressing here the at-long-last reckoning over sexual abuse in the workplace. I’m highlighting the too often overlooked role played by complicit human resource departments.

Let’s spin back to Susan Fowler’s blog post of February recounting her experiences as a site reliability engineer at Uber, where she worked for a little more than a year. Remember, on her first day working with her team she received a string of messages over company chat from her manager. “It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”

The response: she was told it was the manager’s first offence. (Not true, as she later learned.) She was told that her boss was a “high performer.” (Companies have the insidious habit of protecting their “stars.”) She was even told that if she chose to stay with her existing work team her manager would undoubtedly give her a poor performance review. (There was nothing to be done about that, she was told.)

“I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain,” Fowler wrote, joining with other women who had reported the manager in the past. It all came to naught. “We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that.”

Giving up on HR is one option, and understandable in Fowler’s case. But that does no good for the workers left behind.

Rethinking HR is another.

A little history is in order. The archives of B. F. Goodrich confirm that the rubber company established an employee management department in 1900, which numerous historians cite as the first example of personnel administration. National Cash Register established a personnel department two years later. Evolving labour regulations were part of the impetus, but soon enough efficiency management — time and motion studies — was seen as the measure by which to align the interests of the corporation with the interests of the worker.

Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” was designed to achieve “the development of each man to his state of maximum efficiency.” The advantage was to the corporation, of course, in an authoritarian, hierarchical corporate structure. The worker, in this scenario, is a widget, couched in Taylor’s goal of directing the worker to “the highest grade of work for which his natural abilities fit him.”

Administratively, the HR function took on payroll, benefits, training, et cetera, functions we recognize today, with a primary responsibility to protect the company’s interests first.

Academics and management experts in recent years have weighed in on remaking HR, a point made not so subtly by a Harvard Business Review cover line in 2015: “It’s Time to Blow up HR.” Departments should be less administrative (ruled by rote functions) and more strategic in the same way that finance outgrew its former accounting function, playing a key role in corporate decision making.

Placing the chief human resources officer on equal footing with the CEO and CFO is one idea. In this scenario, the unimaginative administrative functions would be shuffled lower in the organizational structure.

What gets missed in this, or at least it seems to me, is the role of HR as employee advocate. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that was never a proper fit.

This is the time when employee advocacy should emerge as a distinct function. A safe place. A trustworthy reporting mechanism.

At The Martin Agency, a new CEO has been hired and employees have been notified about a rollout of unconscious bias training and workplace conduct training for the entire agency.

A note to all employees added, “But this time calls for more than the basics. We’re committed to building an accountable and transparent workplace. So we’ll use Tiny Pulse, an anonymous feedback platform rolling out in January, to track our progress on categories like safe place to work, inclusive workplace, diversity and morale, in real time. And we’ll share that feedback at every step, so you can hold us accountable. Where we’re falling short, we’ll work to get better.”

All organizations should be reaching out to their employees. And ensuring that their voices are truly heard.

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