Steve Lunetta: Time for HR to tackle harassment

Steve Lunetta: Right About Now

As more big names fell this week, I wonder how far this thing can go? As it appears, sexual harassment has been such a part of American culture for so long that removing it is causing a huge culture shift. And, possibly, a change in how companies manage.

I would really love to hear from human resource professionals as to why this has gone on so long but was, effectively, hidden. This is a general HR crisis. If HR was actually protecting the interests of the people in an organization, the harassers would have been eliminated long ago.

But, as we all know, this rarely happened. In fact, one might say that the only reason HR exists is to purely protect the interests of the company. “Shut them up and get them out” was one phrase I heard recently.

Now, I know that there are some ethical companies that have HR departments that take a hard stance on this behavior. But my suspicion is that these companies are few and far between.

What if your top salesman were accused of grabbing a rear? This salesman may be accounting for 40 percent of your total sales and has immense influence with the industry. Firing him could result in massive financial loss to the organization. See how tough this gets?

I knew a vice president of operations who was known as a whiz for producing product. However, the man was an absolute pig and all the staff knew it. Especially the women. His punishment? He was ordered to view sensitivity videos. Seriously. He openly joked about it.

Another married manager I knew had open affairs with women at the workplace. One of the relationships blew up and the woman keyed his car in the parking lot. She got fired. He got promoted. You can’t make this stuff up.

For years, I think most HR departments wanted to keep the rules “squishy” so they could apply judgment on each individual and unique situation. And that seems prudent but it clearly is not working out very well.

When the rules are “flexible,” they can be applied unfairly depending on who the offending party is. For example, a forklift driver could be fired outright for copping a feel when the top salesman may get only a written warning for the same act.

Unfortunately, the offenders know this and take advantage. Did you catch what Sen. Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) said last week? He said he was allowed to behave badly because it was his right as an entertainer. We’ve heard similar comments from other perpetrators.

The dirty truth is that organizations view harassment on a sliding scale that is dependent upon the relative value of the offender.

Matt Lauer created millions in revenue for his employer, NBC. And NBC knew it. Lauer was eyeballs and advertising revenue that could not easily be replaced. And Lauer knew it. He knew that NBC would look the other way because the corporate well-being was at stake.

How can this be fixed? Somehow, a set of solid rules must be created that delineates sexual harassment and the penalties for infractions. Then, it must be enforced.

We drew a line in the sand for statutory rape, didn’t we? Some may argue that drawing this line arbitrarily at 18 years old is ludicrous. What if an 18-year-old boy dates a 17-year old-girl? Still, we as a society have designated a clear age for lawful sexual activity (depending on the state, of course).

Maybe it is time for HR organizations to get some backbone. After all, it appears that moving against harassers is now in the organizational interest. Think of all the lawsuits that HR could have prevented had there been a stronger stance against this sort of behavior?

And one additional thing. Terminated harassers must not be immediately re-hired by the competition. CBS and ABC should not be looking at Matt Lauer and saying, “Hey, look at this opportunity.” HR must stand up in the hiring process and say, “no.” “No” means “no.”

Again, I’d love to hear from HR professionals. Let’s hope that human resource departments develop into the types of organizations that protect all people and make a safer work environment free of harassment.

Steve Lunetta is a resident of Santa Clarita. He can be reached at [email protected].

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