A woman is sexually harassed or assaulted at work. She alerts her company’s human resources department, which does nothing. Only after she makes her allegations public does her employer pay attention.
It’s a narrative familiar now only because women like former Uber engineer Susan Fowler and others have risked their careers to share their stories about how the people hired to protect them in their workplace ultimately failed.
In the wake of Fowler’s bombshell blog post — which set in motion events that led to the eventual resignation of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick — and the recent sexual harassment scandals roiling companies including Amazon Studios, Fox News, Vox Media and Weinstein Co., questions abound as to what human resources was doing when employees needed them most.
At the heart of the problem, experts and victims say, is the fact such departments often serve the company first and foremost, not individual employees. Their job is to limit any reputational and legal damage to the company, creating, in some circumstances, an incentive to dismiss allegations or keep them secret.
“Is human resources really the right place to go?” Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who sued the company’s late chief executive, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment, told Fortune. “Because what I always equate it to is, who’s giving them the paycheck?
“In the end, if the culture’s being set from the top and it’s trickling down to the lower levels, human resources may not be looking out for you,” she added.
Even if a human resources official wanted to take aggressive measures against a problematic employee, there’s no guarantee they could. Many don’t have a direct line to the CEO, let alone the board of directors, said Patrick Wright, director of the Center for Executive Succession at the University of South Carolina.
“It all starts at the top of the HR house,” Wright said. A company’s human resources chief has “to have a relationship with the board that makes it possible to surface issues … particularly those that are being hidden by the CEO.”
The problem, said Wright, is that many human resource departments don’t feel empowered to speak up against executives or protect employees from the very people who are signing their paychecks.
This is particularly pronounced in industries such as tech, where the high demand for talent means that human resources tends to focus on hiring and retaining talent rather than advising and coaching leaders on their behavior.
The fierce competition for workers has also taught some executives that they are “almost god-like and can get away with anything,” said Wright. This can lead to human resource managers playing down complaints out of fear of offending a “high performer.”
That’s precisely what Fowler says she was told when she complained about a predatory supervisor.
Many human resource teams at start-ups tend to be small, inexperienced and focused on recruitment, leaving them ill-equipped to handle complaints when they arise.
That was the case for Eden Rohatensky, a web developer who identifies as non-binary and prefers to go by the pronoun they and them. Rohatensky, a former employee of media company Vox, wrote a blog post detailing their experiences with sexual harassment at various start-ups. (Though Rohatensky did not explicitly name an employer or harasser, Vox announced it had fired an editorial director for inappropriate behavior shortly after Rohatensky’s blog was posted.)
“There aren't resources to truly take care of people, and so many things get messed up because of that,” Rohatensky told the Los Angeles Times via email.
All this “creates a perfect storm of somewhat out-of-control executives,” said Wright.
That sort of environment compounds the lack of faith many employees have in their human resources departments.
Human resources is considered so ineffectual by workers that 75% of women who have experienced unwanted and inappropriate advances from male colleagues have never bothered to report it out of fear of retaliation or not being believed, according to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study. Of those who did report incidents, 95% said they’d seen no consequences for accused men.
The most successful human resources teams — those that are able to nip problems in the bud before they can become explosive scandals, lawsuits or costly settlements — are empowered by a head of human resources who in turn is empowered by a company’s top leaders, corporate governance experts said.
Some proven strategies, according to mediator Abby Silverman Weiss, include having an organizational chart that has the head of human resources reporting directly to the CEO or higher.
Alexandra Coonce, the vice president of people at tech start-up Glint, meets one-on-one with her CEO every week and has quarterly meetings with the company’s board members. She has a direct line to the board, which she believes has helped the company create an environment of “transparency, trust and openness.”
“I don’t believe any of us are powerless,” said Coonce, who has even been granted the authority to hire a third-party firm to conduct internal investigations should it be necessary.
Another strategy includes getting the company’s board or audit committee to audit the human resources team as they would any other risk, which is what former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder recommended to Uber after the ride-hailing company commissioned his law firm to investigate the company’s culture.
“If they look at HR and ask questions as if it’s a regular risk — questions such as, ‘Do we have any potential HR issues that could rise to a material level?’ — that can also empower an HR team,” Silverman Weiss said.
Uber said it has overhauled its human resources practices since Fowler’s blog post. The company tripled the size of its human resources team and introduced an anonymous hotline for employees to report abuse or inappropriate behavior, an Uber spokesperson said.
The company believes its failings in the past were partly due to the lack of senior employees in human resources. The vice president heading the department, Liane Hornsey, now reports directly to Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi. She’s also tasked with informing the board of directors about progress the company is making in meeting Holder’s recommendations, the spokesperson said.
For organizations stuck in a culture of toxicity, sometimes it takes a scandal and leadership overhaul before human resources can be effective again.
“There usually has to be some type of shock,” said David Mayer, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Or it could be the industry reading the leaves. You can see that in Hollywood this isn’t just affecting Harvey Weinstein’s firm — a lot of firms are now hyper-aware of this.”
Many effective heads of human resources have had “badge-on-the-table moments,” said Wright, where they know that raising an issue could get them fired, but their conscience requires that they raise it anyway.
“I heard one chief HR officer say that they should have an employment contract that specifies a significant payout if they are fired, [and that] that would give them courage,” said Wright.
It’s not a bad idea, he said, but he also sees it as a crutch.
“I’d rather see chief HR officers have courage, conviction and confidence.”