What can HR managers learn from the Susan Fowler controversy at Uber? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
It will be hard for HR managers to learn anything, since HR (in most organizations) is a cost center. Companies don't lend themselves well to handling bias and sexism. But if they screen up-front for values, there may be a fighting chance.
This won't be a popular answer, but many HR managers frankly don't have a lot of direct authority in organizations. Consider the following (short) situation:
"You're the CEO of Edison, a revolutionary new solar panel provider. You build an amazing product--some flaws but 2x better than what's on the market. You hire a sales team, with 5 people. Of them, John generates 85% of the sales. Dude is a rockstar, can sell sand to a Bedouin. One of your engineers, Lisa, comes in and says that John harassed her late one night at the office. She says he got drunk and invited her to spend the night at a hotel, and grabbed her arm and said 'come on' when she politely declined. John remembers it differently, and says Lisa was flirting, and that of course he didn't touch her. What do you do? You confront John and say that the behavior is inappropriate, which is of course true. John agrees, he says he'll be more careful.
But in the upcoming months, things get hotter. John starts making eye contact with Lisa every time she walks down the hall. Lisa feels uncomfortable. She complains, but John says it's just friendly to smile and make eye contact with coworkers. John says if you try to prevent him from being friendly again he'll just go to your competitor, and take all of his accounts with him.
So you're the CEO - do you fire John and risk 85% of the sales of your new product on principle? Do you keep him there until he does something clearly incorrect?"
The CEO has a tough decision (even if you objectively believe Lisa is being threatened). Firing John could spell the end of jobs for hundreds of people - you can't recover easily from 85% sales loss.
Companies aren't built well to handle moral situations--companies are built to make money.
These goals are often orthogonal to each other (as we've seen time and time again). HR is basically an internal 'justice' department. However, most of the time they don't have the power to make decisions like this. And even if they do, they could come at a huge cost. The HR manager who fires the top performing person at a company could see their career cut drastically short. You certainly won't be liked by most people in the organization who depend on the company for their salary, stock price increases, etc.
Is there any way out?
It would seem that the only way out would be a company with a strong set of values, and a zero tolerance policy for violating those values. What if we just said that 'making someone feel threatened' is against our values. Then it's clear that John should just be fired, right?
Well, once again, in comes politics and performance. Maybe people start saying that coworkers make them feel uncomfortable to get political points and take out their opponents.
Don't think this could happen? Just look at all of the other incidental information about Uber in the posts. Managers literally withheld important information to gain a leg up so that others would fail.
On Wall Street, in competitive high schools, this kind of thing happens all the time.
As a result, a clear policy like this can serve as a lever to eliminate opponents inside the organization. And it would only take one person to have forced out an 'innocent' to call into question the value of the policy.
I'm not saying companies and HR can do nothing - just that anything that they do will likely be ineffective when faced with business needs.
In the end, we can't expect morality to come from companies. They can enforce behavior, but not really morality. Instead, they need to screen for morality and values.
One thing you never see in an interview or hiring process is a 'values' or 'moral' pledge. Imagine making candidates pledge, up front, that they will never harass a coworker, or make unwanted advances, or make inappropriate comments. Make it clear if they do these things, they'll lose their jobs. Make them say that to their hiring manager, and to the company publicly. Make it clear that values matter in your organization.
People don't do this (or at least not often) because it's weird. It's kind of cult-ish. And on top of that, people will make mistakes...because they're young, inexperienced, or just didn't learn at home.
But at least making things explicit and normative from a culture perspective puts the burden on those who fault the values or morals of the company.
I believe it would also make the situation like Susan Fowler's much less likely to persist and play out the way it did.
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