When HR Must Act

I am sure that you, like many of us, read the recent blog by the (former) Uber engineer Susan Fowler (https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber)

with a mix of incredulousness and alarm. How could such overt and blatant harassment like that happen to a professional woman in a hip and progressive company like Uber? How on earth could Human Resources allow that to happen?

To recap for those who may have missed the blog; Ms. Fowler was an engineer at Uber and experienced some of the most egregious inappropriate requests imaginable from her direct manager from the very first day of working on a new team. This was not subtle stuff – this was direct requests to have sex because, as he explained, he was in an open relationship and was looking for sex partners. All this over the company chat program! Ms. Fowler was properly appalled, took screen shots of the messages and met with Human Resources. Exactly what she should do, right?

We must pay attention to this: Human Resources representatives did NOTHING to assist her. In fact, they said over the course of several conversations, that they essentially didn’t want to make a big deal of this because he was a “high performer” and told her that this complaint was “his first offense”. Come to find out, other women complained about him and were ALSO told it was “his first offense”.

A SHRM article on this topic called this “the toothless HR Department”. These HR professionals were caught in the web of a toxic company culture versus the law. Company culture won out. Why? Wasn’t looking the other way the absolute antithesis of what they should have done? Yes, absolutely. But you must understand that HR employees are just that – employees. And, if the function is not supported or respected by senior leaders, they can be influenced to “go along” with bad behavior for fear of losing their jobs.

It all starts at the top. What is tolerated becomes imbedded in the culture.

As a cutting edge, fast moving company, Uber was more about “winning” in the marketplace than taking care of employees. A spate of other problems with employees, such as challenges to the independent contractor status of drivers and the recent video of the CEO arguing and yelling at a driver, have certainly tarnished its shiny image. But along the way, the “keepers of the flame”, the very people whose job it is to balance what is good for the company with what is good for employees failed in a major way. They were co-opted by the very culture they really should have changed or at least attempted to change. To be fair, we do not know what, if any, efforts were made in this regard. We just know that in the case of Ms. Fowler and others, HR, did not pursue an investigation of the manager, lied to the complaining employees and overall protected the offending manager.

There are many things to learn from this story. But most of all, this is an object lesson to those of us who are in this sacred, trusted advisor role. We need to be strong enough to stand up for what is right. And as a business leader, whether in the public or private sector, you need to be aware of the culture you set – what you tolerate, what you do not tolerate, and how you treat your Human Resources support.

I understand fully as an HR professional what it means to challenge senior leaders, to stand up for what is right, to say things they do not want to hear. There is personal risk there. However, it is our professional responsibility to do it if the company culture allows or even celebrates inappropriate and/or illegal actions of high performers, senior leaders or anyone.

HR is not for the faint of heart – it requires us to act for what is right.