Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a regular stream of major corporations flounder in the harsh spotlight after sexual harassment scandals leave them wishing they had taken human resources and employee handbooks more seriously. Even in 2017, we’re still seeing harassment claims cause headaches for major employers.
In some cases, the harassment has been rampant, a holdover from the “Mad Men” era when professional and personal mores weren’t as well defined. In others, such as new, young companies, oftentimes it’s a byproduct of poor HR planning and implementation. In almost all cases, it’s just a bad idea not to address these issues upfront and establish clear anti-harassment policies. No employer wants to suffer in the harsh glare of the media when a claim makes front page news.
So, what are the lessons we can learn from these companies? First, do not underestimate the importance of your people to your mission and success. Your people are the trees that create the forest of your enterprise. How they are planted, nurtured and cultivated determines your success. Also, understand the connection between this fact and your human resources department. An experienced and professional HR department can make the difference in strategically developing a workplace culture and environment in which your vision and values are realized, or…well, you may risk going down the path on which some companies recently found themselves.
Establishing a strong and robust role for your HR department and leader as part of the executive leadership team (reporting directly to the top position) is critical to your organization’s success. The HR function can be an integral part of leading and establishing your company’s vision, mission and values and in this way help to establish your company culture. Let’s be honest – if you do not set your culture intentionally, then you are allowing it to form unintentionally and it’s often the leader him or herself whose personality and values dictate that culture. While this can be great, it can also be devastating. It is certainly not a risk worth taking.
Once an organization’s vision and value system is created and adopted, HR can develop the policies, programs and systems to align which will ultimately provide the structure needed to set the culture “in stone” as the company’s foundation. HR can strategically market and communicate company policies and programs to meet the needs of employees as well as address concerns in a timely manner. Finally, HR is able to audit and check the culture and the state of employees’ morale through multiple tools in order to identify and correct deficiencies which may arise over time. A critical role of the HR leader as a key member of the leadership team is to keep the team apprised of the state of the organization and of actions needed to correct problems that arise as they occur.
The bottom line – the organizations that are the most successful view the Human Resources department, not as transactional, but as a strategic and integral member of the company’s executive leadership team. Leaders who understand the risks from an HR and compliance standpoint value the critical role of HR and create a culture where HR is given the resources needed to perform its function in an efficient and effective manner. More importantly, visionary leaders appreciate and seek HR’s voice and guidance. Guidance that can make the difference between a company plagued by devastating headlines and lawsuits and a company where the workplace is free from harassment and discrimination allowing the company’s most important resource – its talent – to flourish. For businesses that continue to struggle with the issue in public - the future remains to be played out. While most likely a huge setback, I believe businesses that have endured public scrutiny over poor anti-harassment policies can recover, it is not too late to recognize mistakes made and take the steps needed to reset the direction in the right way. It’s never too late to ensure a strong and sustainable foundation.
Cathy Mills is a senior consultant with Foundations Human Resources Consulting in Lexington, Kentucky. Cathy can be contacted at 859-286-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org