Is your HR department effective at stopping sexual harassment, or are they, like many of the companies described by The New York Times, "ineffective"? There are many reasons why HR can't put a stop to all discrimination and harassment (of all kinds, not just sexual harassment), but we can change things for the better. Here are the problems and solutions. 

Problem: "HR's client is the company, which means that HR is supposed to protect the company's interests."

This quote comes from Cynthia Calvert, a discrimination lawyer and senior adviser to the Center for WorkLife Law in San Francisco, in an email to The New York Times.  Calvert is right that this can be a problem. This is how you end up with low-level people (usually female) getting ignored or offered small settlements to go away, in order to protect a senior level superstar (usually male). 

Solution: Change the company's interest.

We may not actually have to do much for this change to occur. Every CEO is fully aware of the sexual harassment scandals hitting the news. CEOs are aware that even if they, themselves, have not harassed anyone, their jobs are still in jeopardy. Uber's Susan Fowler didn't accuse Travis Kalanick of sexual harassment, but he fell in the resulting scandal

Executives, and boards of directors, can see that protecting a harasser may not only embarrass the company but it could also destroy their own careers. With social media, you cannot guarantee that a nondisclosure clause in a settlement will keep things quiet. The company's interest has changed.

Problem: HR doesn't take accusations seriously.

The New York Times documents many situations in which HR brushed off complaints, excusing bad behavior. In many cases, the accused person was a high performer or high level--often a higher level than the HR manager taking the complaint.

Solution: HR needs to report directly to the CEO.

Changing a reporting structure may seem like a cosmetic fix, but when you have HR people saying "That's just the way he is" or "I can't fix it," what they mean is they lack the power to make meaningful changes. If the head of HR is lower level than the offender or the offender's boss, HR has no real power. 

Now, granted, the CEO can still torpedo anything she wants to, but some powerful VP won't be able to. Now, it's important that HR not be granted a title but no real status. That won't change anything.

Problem: People don't respect HR.

Look, I get it. I use the name "Evil HR Lady" precisely because people hate HR. We bring it on ourselves. We treat candidates poorly. We force people into boring (and often worthless) training sessions. And we ignore real complaints. The end result is, no matter the title, no matter the salary, and no matter the reporting structure, people will ignore an organization they don't respect.

Solution: HR needs to earn respect.

Note that I said "earn," not that people need to simply respect HR. You can't simply order respect. To earn respect, HR needs to:

  • Speak the language of business. If you can't speak to business leaders in an intelligent manner, you don't deserve your role. HR especially needs to understand the company, inside and out. New HR people should be given a crash course in this particular company. You can't be a trusted partner if you don't understand the products.
  • Get the little things right. If you have the best ideas for reducing harassment but screw up open enrollment every year, no one will listen to your ideas. You have to get the paperwork done the right way the first time, or no one will listen to your big ideas.
  • Walk the walk. Seventy-three percent of HR managers are female, but HR screams that tech needs to be 50-50. Sorry, ladies, I'll believe you when you start doing outreach events to attract men into your profession. If you want to say, "Men and women have different career interests," then fine, but if you say all differences are due to discrimination, then you had better fix your own department first. 
  • Treat candidates right. Job seekers at all levels can share stories about recruiters who ghost them, demand that they come in for multiple interviews, and have them do tons of free work as "samples." Do not underestimate how these bad practices affect people's perception of HR. When your recruiters stink, no one respects the rest of HR.

If we implement these changes, I guarantee that HR will be effective against sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and general bullying. But, if we don't make changes, we'll continue to be ineffective. That's not good for the business.