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The news these days is rife with the #MeToo movement helping women find their voice against sexual harassment in their company or line of work. Everyone who has come out as an expert on the topic insists that the first thing a victim of harassment should do is report it to HR or the equivalent within their sphere.

But what happens if HR itself is the perpetrator, and the harassment starts all the way at the top with the Director? And to further flip the coin, what if the gender roles are also reversed? That is, the HR department is all female and the target of their harassment is exclusively males?

Some further details that may help paint the picture:

  • Several males in the office, from different departments, are seated in and around the HR team, and are subject to lewd jokes and inappropriate conversations on a daily basis.
  • The HR staff boast about having been sexually harassed by men before, but let it continue because the harasser was attractive.
  • When anyone on the team hints that their behavior might get them in trouble the HR director boasts that "The company can't fire [her]".
  • The HR team constantly talks about employees behind their backs in very derogatory language, including loudly offering up details of employee complaints/issues which should be strictly private.

In summary: What course of action should one take when the HR department is the source of verbal/sexual harassment, and there's no third-party mediator to arbitrate complaints?

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    Related, though the problem isn't quite the same: who to go to when the problem is HR? – David K Dec 20 '17 at 14:11
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    Several thousand employees. There's no well-defined hierarchy, I report directly to the CTO, but each department is so siloed that even he doesn't have a proscribed way to deal with something like this. He's also been subjected to this same harassment for 15+ years and hasn't done anything about it, so I don't trust him to handle it properly. – thanby Dec 20 '17 at 14:20
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    There were a number of valid comments deleted. Many addressed the reason for VTC. – paparazzo Dec 21 '17 at 16:16
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    Can someone comment on the close votes? I've not received any critiques of the question, so 4 close votes is alarming (edit: one person did question the situation but that's all I remember) – thanby Dec 21 '17 at 16:35
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    I'm voting to reopen this, because the question is pretty clearly stated. I've requested for reopen in Meta as well. – David K Dec 21 '17 at 17:07
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In a case like this, the only person who can fix it is the CEO. First document the behavior with dates, times, and the name of the person who said something offensive. Then when you have a good long list, have your manager bring it to the CEO. Personally I would concentrate on this part because it is the most likely to get action and is the least subjective (and totally unprofessional for an HR, it is a firing offense):

The HR team constantly talks about employees behind their backs in very derogatory language, including loudly offering up details of employee complaints/issues which should be strictly private.

Having a lawyer write a cease and desist letter to the CEO if no action is taken could also help this. Sometimes a public shaming in the press works (but does put your job at risk, so don't do it lightly or without expecting the worst consequences.)

If you don't want to pursue this legally, then the best bet is to move on.

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    Completely agree with this answer EXCEPT for the part about working through your manager. In the OPs case, this information is best sent to the CEO anonymously. There are various ways to accomplish this... with a fake email account sent from outside of the company, printing out all information and leaving an unsigned letter to the CEO, even directly communicating with the CEOs home address (if it is known). Either way, the best way to avoid retribution is to make sure your name is not attached to the accusations. – DanK Dec 20 '17 at 15:21
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    If several people are affected I'd also suggest to pool together, i.e. either separately write mails / letters, or write one together, signed by all (if you are fine with doing it officially) or indicating which instance of reported harassment affected whom - if necessary in an anonymized way, like 10 instances of type A behaviour affected 3 different persons, 4 instances of type B behaviour two other persons etc. so it's clear to the CEO that there isn't one crazy/oversensitive guy writing anonymous mails, but that there is a systemic problem. – Frank Hopkins Dec 21 '17 at 2:06
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    @DanK while an anonymous complaint will put the CEO on notice that they should look into the issue, any concrete action should require someone willing to go on the record. You don't expect the CEO to fire people over anonymous accusations, do you? – Acccumulation Dec 21 '17 at 16:39
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    @user70848 Based on the OP's third bullet, I think the HR Director is well aware of their behavior and will not respond favorably. I can only imagine that going to the HR Director directly would result in retaliation against you. – David K Dec 21 '17 at 18:25
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    @DavidK the bullet says "whenever someone hints". A hint is not a direct statement. Not everyone understands hints. This is why I said it doesn't sound like anyone has had a serious discussion about this. Aside from this, retaliation is illegal and, if that happens, they should get a lawyer. – user70848 Dec 22 '17 at 16:47
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What course of action should one take when the HR department is the source of verbal/sexual harassment, and there's no third-party mediator to arbitrate complaints?

In reversing the role, HR being the bad guy, and the victimization is female against a male, your best bet is to hit the road, because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you. And if the abuse has been happening for 15 plus years, it is even less likely to change.

You can try to build your case within the company hierarchy, but the question is who do you present your case to? HR is usually not your friend under normal circumstances, and what you outlined is even worse than usual.

The other option you have is to make a hire a lawyer and make a legal case, but again your odds are slim regarding a meaningful victory and it will most likely cost you a chunk of change.

Short answer: I would move on or ignore it, after 15 years its not likely to improve.

14

You should probably get out while you can still do so without being implicated in some scandal.

Barring that, go to your boss with documented records of these instances:

Mon Dec 18, 11:30 AM: [HR REP 1] made the following comment to [HR REP 2]: [BLAH]
Wed Dec 20, 10:00 AM: [HR DIRECTOR] was overheard speaking to [HR REP 2] about an HR matter in a derogatory manner, deriding the employee who had lodged the complaint.

In the end, however, it's the higher ups who have to step up and take charge of the situation. If they refuse to do so for various political reasons, then this behavior will continue to be perpetuated.

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    In any case, you document everything, especially if it might result in lawsuits, either by you or by the company (or someone in the company) – SliderBlackrose Dec 20 '17 at 14:51
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First, you should look closely to see if this meets the appropriate legal standards. Companies generally hold themselves to higher standards than the law requires, but if push comes to shove (as it well might in a situation like this) you can only make them follow the law.

Second, make sure this is really worth fighting. Even if you are in the right, the best move may be not to play. Consider updating your resume and looking for another job.

Third, document everything. Keep track of dates, people, witnesses, and details. Then file a formal complaint.

Fourth, file a formal complaint with HR. Make a good faith effort to get a proper resolution from HR and, again, document everything.

Fifth, if your complaint is mishandled, decide if you really, really want to fight this battle. If you do then you should contact a lawyer(BTW contacting one immediately is a good idea as well) to get their advice on how to proceed. You are walking into a legal minefield here and you need to be careful with your next actions.

If your boss has had any sexual harassment training for managers, he knows that this is the worst situation a company can possibly find itself. The penalties for harassing an employee into resignation are among the most severe. The company will, unless it's incredibly dumb, involve lawyers at this point.

Again, do you really want to do this? Are your coworkers willing to stand with you?

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    Agreed, ultimatums almost never end well for the person giving it. – Chris E Dec 21 '17 at 16:56
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    I made a pretty major edit because I felt the advice offered was dangerous, but you were very close otherwise. If you object to the edit feel free to roll back but I hope you can see the logic in it. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Dec 21 '17 at 18:15
  • @IDrinkandIKnowThings Very nice edit IMHO. Earned my vote. – Mister Positive Dec 22 '17 at 14:40
  • Agree, but consider consulting a lawyer before making a formal complaint. – user44634 Dec 22 '17 at 14:55
  • @Ben - I am not sure what you mean by making a formal complaint. In the US bringing a report of misconduct to HR even verbally is considered making a formal complaint. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Dec 23 '17 at 2:11
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HR does not run the company and ultimately are meant to serve the company's needs. While one might hope that going to HR might protect their interests, their actions typically will put the company first and your interests second. This is tolerated by executives as HR exists to act out these priorities and its felt to be in the businesses interest.

But ultimately HR reports to executives and the ownership of the business and, if you can demonstrate that they're doing harm to the business, someone at that level can and will take action. However, if their attitude enables their behaviour or, on balance, they feel that making a fuss about it would cost them more than trying to sweep it (and you) away, they're more likely to opt for that course of action.

What happens depends on the company. Some HR departments will have an iron grip on their role, the CEO's ear and can poison the well before you ever get access to the CEO. Others will be enabled by a CEO who feels this behaviour is acceptable or at least tolerable as 'not that bad'. Worse still, HR might be good at covering up incidents and the executive level might be truly ignorant.

If you want to stay at such a company, you're not in for an easy ride. Once you identify unsavoury elements within HR, you keep going over their heads until you reach someone reasonable and amenable to action (for which there is no guarantee that there will be such a person). At this point, hopefully, you'll have enough evidence to actually take action, but such action could destroy the company whether by warring politics or the upheaval of having to wholesale replace your HR department. It's far more likely that, in the process of trying to achieve this, you might be fired and/or forced out for rocking the boat, or that you find nobody sympathetic.

If you're entirely looking out for yourself I'd follow other people's advice to just leave. However, that doesn't mean that can be your only action. A good option for post-employment action might be to contact the media and be an anonymous source/whistleblower on the behaviour and the environment it enables. With the #metoo movement, there will likely be more interest in such leads. Going on the record and leaking while on the job may be more likely to get you fired and incur reputational impact to your career (a lot of companies might not hire you, a few progressives might be more interested).

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    Why the downvote? HR is there to protect the company from actions which will damage the company's reputation publicly or harm its chances of successful legal action. People sometimes seem to act like they're some sort of pro-active union which is going to protect employees from upper management. I cannot understand how this peculiar misconception persists. – bye Dec 20 '17 at 20:23
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    It persists because HR wants it to. They're the ones who give the orientations and the way they phrase it is along the lines of "If you have a dispute with your manager, we can help". Since the vast majority of people never take that route, the myth persists. – Chris E Dec 21 '17 at 16:58
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There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding, in both answers and the question, on the role of HR in an organization. HR's sole responsibility is to protect, in this order, the organization, and its shareholders, executives and managers, from civil and criminal prosecution. To the extent that OP's allegations are accurate, this HR department has completely abandoned any pretense at fulfilling that responsibility. The allegations are serious violations of Personally Identifiable Information laws

Not only will the CEO be very interested to learn that HR is endangering rather than protecting his/her butt, but the corporate auditors will need to completely re-assess the risk position of the organization in light of these facts. In fact, it may be necessary to re-issue past financial statements in light of any allegations that can be established to have definitely occurred in past years.

If the organization is publicly traded, then any and all sales of company stock by insiders between the reporting of the allegations to the CEO and auditors, and the public release of that information, will be potentially subject to SEC investigation as insider trading; a serious felony.

I would recommend reporting the ethical violations to both the CEO and the corporate auditors. As HR personnel are likely to have a long memory concerning the fall-out from this reporting, doing so anonymously is highly recommended.

  • This answer seems very naive to me. The role of HR at the end of the day is to protect the company. Helping employees comes way after that. – Mister Positive Dec 22 '17 at 14:38
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    @IamSoNotListening: Isn't that what my second sentence says? It's what it is intended to say. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 22 '17 at 14:48
  • This section is what I am referring too "Not only will the CEO be very interested to learn that HR is endangering rather than protecting his/her butt" – Mister Positive Dec 22 '17 at 14:48
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    @IamSoNotListening: The CEO is an officer of the organization. For many purposes, in many jurisdictions, officers are jointly and severally liable for acts of the organization. Just look at ENRON. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 22 '17 at 14:51
  • After 15 years, don't you think the CEO and HR are in sync, I mean unless he is totally clueless.... – Mister Positive Dec 22 '17 at 14:52
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It depends a bit on what your goal is. If your primary goal is to maximize the chances of legal consequences for the company, then you should file a complaint with HR. Either they respond to it properly, in which case the issue stops, or they respond improperly, in which case you have a further cause of action against the company. You should also look at whether there are any other places to file a complaint: legal department, executive hierarchy, etc. You can also file complaints with external agencies, such as EEOC. Make sure to document the behavior, your complaints, and the response to the complaints, and get as much cooperation from co-workers as possible.

If you have a different primary goal, such as wanting as little hassle as possible, then other courses of action may optimal, such as finding a different job.

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A different approach than the ones mentioned is to contact a member of the board (the CEO might or might not be one, so I'm thinking of someone other than the CEO).

You can google their CVs to see which one of them is more likely to be familiar with such a situation.

If you find an active board member, they will be very interested in dealing with this situation - which might mean to investigate and take corrective action. If you don't raise the complaint anonymously, or you do raise it anonymously but include enough detail to be identified, you should look for another job.

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In every place of business you will find a poster, or a place where several federal and state policies are attached to a wall. Most people ignore these policies.

Amongst them, you will likely find a piece of paper that has a toll-free number for an external company hired by your company to act as a neutral third-party for ethics violations.

If the problem you are citing is at the C-level, then going to the CEO will be pointless: he or she already knows and the behavior you are seeing is part of their culture. Why else would the HR director feel comfortable acting this way?

To raise the issue, you'd have to go (if the company has one) to the Board of Directors. Using this third-party is the way to do that. You also have state and federal employment agencies to report this to.

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