Sexual Harassment and HR
Kwame S. Salter
still so rampant in our companies and organizations? The answer is simple. Herein lies the problem. HR is too close to the centers of power.
The career trajectory of an HR professional too often depends on how well they ingratiate themselves to the powers that run the organization. Is
the HR professional man or woman enough to take on an influential person rumored to be a sexual predator? Or, does the HR representative
see protecting of an alleged harasser as part of their agent role versus investigating a sexual harassment claim?
Regrettably, too many in HR are conflicted when it comes to taking on the 'big boys' in the organization. The conflict is between doing the right
thing for the complaining employee and their career trajectory. They don't want to alienate or piss off someone who could make or break their
career. Thus, they end up soft-peddling the complaint or casting doubt in the minds of the complainant about what happened. They might
suggest that what happened was misinterpreted by the woman or that the offending behavior was unintentional. The HR representative might
even suggest that the event or situation was the result of something she did or wore. Even more duplicitous, the HR person might pretend to
take the complaint seriously and then give a friendly warning to the alleged perpetrator to cover his tracks or come up with a credible defense.
All in all, the nexus of a professional relationship and friendship can undermine a serious and objective investigation of the complaint. Even
more disturbing to the woman is the real possibility that the burden of proof will lie with her and not the alleged harasser. Getting a reputation
for complaining about a powerful man can be a career derailer.
As an advocate for employees, the HR professional should adhere to a consistent protocol when told about an alleged harassment claim.
Explicitly, when informed of a potential case of harassment, HR should ensure the following steps become a part of the intake process when
told about an alleged harassment incident:
1. Make no judgment about either the woman's or the man's character.
2. Do not attempt to restate what the woman says as an attempt to sanitize her complaint. Record what she said and do not interpret what you
think she said.
3. Without equivocation, ensure that an impartial investigation will take place.
4. Reassure the complainant that you will make sure, regardless of the investigation outcome, that no recrimination against her will be
5. Objectively investigate the complaint and make the alleged harasser aware of the issue and the consequences, if found to be legitimate.
6. Keep the alleged harassers' boss in the loop. Emphasize that there should be no contact with the complainant.
7. Early on protect yourself. Establish to all that you intend to be an 'honest broker' during and after the conclusion of the investigation. Let all
know that after the investigation is concluded, you will let the "chips fall where they may."
In closing, the advice shared in this article, notwithstanding, investigating sexual harassment claims against powerful men is a dicey
proposition. Always do the right thing. Still, watch your back.
Kwame S. Salter is a former Madisonian who was active in both the University and larger Madison community for over two decades. Kwame
was elected to three terms on the MMSD’s Board of Education and was elected by his peers to serve four consecutive terms as President of
the BOE. Kwame joined Oscar Mayer in 1986 and was promoted to Kraft Foods and moved to Illinois in 1995. And in 2008, Kwame retired as
the Senior Vice-President, HR, Kraft Global Supply Chain.
News of widespread sexual abuse/harassment of women has hit the proverbial fan; it seems that no industry,
organization or political party is exempt. While reprehensible, sexual harassment is not surprising. The
objectification of women is evident in every culture on the planet Earth. Sexism, excuse the pun, is the
'mother of all isms.' Our culture is no exception. Sexism is "as American as apple pie." Men hitting on women
is nothing new. Men using their position and power to coerce women into bed is also nothing new.
What is new is that women in droves are now taking advantage of this moment — a teachable moment, for
sure — in time to expose the heretofore powerful and untouchable men — who assume that women are
‘game' that they can hunt and harass at their leisure or whim. While chasing and badgering women use to be
considered "Game on!" and a uniquely male perk, such behavior is quickly becoming taboo and career
ending. The workplace has and remains the arena where sexual contact and conquest has enjoyed its
longest run. Thus, the role of Human Resources is being brought into sharper relief. In other words, HR has
The HR function must play two different roles, as both the agent of the company and the advocate of the
employee. As the agent of the company, HR’s job is to represent the company's vision, mission, goals, and
decisions. Similarly, HR must protect employee rights while guaranteeing a workplace that is safe physically,
psychologically and emotionally. Sexual harassment violates all three rules of safety — physical,
psychological, and emotional. Given HR's charter as the employee's advocate, why is sexual harassment