In the tensed atmosphere of the last electoral weekend in the Czech Republic it was quite easy to lose track of a significant issue holding headlines in the US and not only – the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal and the overwhelming #metoo global response from women coming forward to tell their stories of harassment and abuse, often at the workplace.
What caught my attention during a Sunday morning reporting by the CNN was a moderated expert discussion around how the alleged abuse could have gone on for so long without anyone coming forward to report it sooner.
A legal expert pointed that numerous companies have their future staff sign quite tough non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which, in the showbiz industry, often include clauses dealing with what could otherwise be perceived as sexual misconduct and abuse; breaking such an NDA could lead to major economic consequences for those breaking the silence – not to talk about the victim blaming attitude, which still prevents numerous victims from coming forward in such circumstances.
"The HR is paid by the company. That’s why people are afraid to report misconduct."
The discussion then moved from legal aspects to the question: “Yes, but where was the HR? When someone is abused, how comes the victim has no one to go to for advice and support?”
The answer of the expert present in the CNN studio was quite straightforward, very much along the lines: “Because the HR is paid by the company. That’s why people are afraid to report misconduct - they are afraid that the HR will ultimately turn against them.”
Beyond the massive noise of the Weinstein scandal I get a feeling that this issue is pointing at something much deeper, which is the presence – or lack of – courage within HR departments to stand up for what is suitable and acceptable behavior, mainly from the company leadership, when someone down the ranks brings issues of potential abuse to their attention.
I think we can all agree that HR is so much more than processes. It really, really is about people. Can you imagine that a member of your staff – any member of your staff - cannot come to you in full trust for guidance and support? How can we really even start talking about employee attraction, engagement and retention if bottom line issues such as providing a feeling of safety, human decency and respect for your people at the workplace can be put under question?
Today HR people are the guardians of people's trust in a company – if trust fails, the company will fail.
The key to preventing such issues is in my view two-fold:
- Communication, communication, communication: Constantly talking at all levels within the company about what harassment, abuse and unacceptable behavior is and what the consequences for engaging in such behavior are.
- Emotional intelligence: By raising the level of emotional intelligence with your people you help them to understand where they really stand and the impact of their behavior on their environment. It can be as simple as mirroring to someone that what they consider “a joke” is, for someone else, abuse. Or that certain outfits simply don’t belong to the workplace. By cultivating your people’s self-awareness, self-mastery, empathy and social skills you support your people to make healthier decisions in all aspects of their work and life. Ultimately, the benefits that you will reap go way beyond preventing abuse – in the end you will enjoy a more mature company culture, driven by individuals who genuinely operate on boundaries and mutual respect.
Yet that cannot be achieved without raising the emotional intelligence of the HR staff first. If HR people are too afraid to confront abusers, or if they are more concerned with keeping their job than doing their job, there is toll to be taken by such behavior on the whole HR industry, which needs to be pointed at and called for what it is.