Why Human Resources Departments Seldom Have Teeth in Sexual Harassment Cases

With near daily revelations of sexual misconduct, human resources is being dragged through the mud — for good reason

Last Updated: November 2, 2017 @ 1:22 PM

During an event last month promoting her new book, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back,” former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson took a pointed shot at a workplace institution — Human Resources.

Despite its traditional role as a mediator of workplace complaints, Carlson blasted HR departments at Fox and many other large corporations as ineffective.

“I actually believe that reporting sexual harassment should go to a different part of the company. In fact, it shouldn’t even be a part of the company,” she said. “Remember who is signing the paycheck, because that’s who you’re beholden to. And if the harasser is the boss, then forget it. You as the employee have no chance.”

As the political and media worlds deal with near daily allegations of sexual misconduct, HR has emerged as a familiar boogeyman, at best looking the other way and at worst actively enabling the behavior they are supposed to prevent. In many cases, individuals like Mark Halperin at ABC News and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News who have become the targets of sexual misconduct accusations never received a single HR complaint.

“Sexual harassment claims are obviously amongst the most sensitive for all parties involved. The stress that an employee has about reporting it cannot be underestimated,” Glen Loveland, a veteran HR manager now working for China Central Television, told TheWrap. “It really is up to HR to create an environment in which employees feel safe to speak with them.”

Loveland added that too many industry professionals were disconnected from the day-to-day realities of employees.

“HR leaders have a responsibility to be more visible in the workplace. Building those relationships and bridges is so important to help ward off issues in the first place,” he noted.

There are other issues too. During an appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” another former Fox News host, Megyn Kelly, summed up the dilemma many women face when deciding whether to file a complaint.

“Even if HR is a real option, it doesn’t always go your way,” Kelly told Meyers during an October appearance. “If you take a shot at the king you better kill him, you’ve heard that saying. If you don’t win this showdown, you know what’s going to happen to you.”

Indeed without the a smoking gun — damning evidence like emails or text messages — too many HR complaints devolve into a he said, she said argument with no end result except the residue of bad blood. In many cases, too, HR professionals fail to close the loop by explaining to accusers how their original complaint was resolved.

Rob Toole, a partner with the HR outsourcing firm, Kona HR Consulting, agreed with Kelly’s assessment.

“The big issue is, if you go to HR and you want to make a complaint against Bill O’Reilly, the first thing you tell the person is, ‘We have to tell Bill O’Reilly you are making complaint,'” said Toole, citing procedures required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In Toole’s experience, that disclosure to the accused dissuades roughly half of employees from filing complaints in the first place.

Failure to “kill the king” also raises the real issue of retaliation from the company or the accused.

While workplace retaliation over sexual harassment charges is specifically forbidden by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it does happen, with Toole and Kelly both saying it can be conducted in subtle ways that are almost impossible to prove.

Toole said if you truly had the goods on a sexual harasser, it might be best to bypass HR altogether and get a lawyer.

“If you have concrete evidence things have been done, I would quit my job and get a lawyer and cash out,” he said.

And with news of high dollar dollar settlements emerging on a seemingly daily basis, it seems a growing number of accusers have come to the same conclusion.