Listening to Harassment

In the past week, we’ve learned about Harvey Weinstein.  Much like Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and others, the conduct perpetrated by Mr. Weinstein is horrific and devastating.  Questions like “how did this go on for so long” or “why didn’t the women speak up” are natural, but these miss the fundamental point – this happened.  The conduct was ignored or even facilitated by others for so long.

What if you were HR at the Weinstein Company?  What if a brave woman came to you and explained what had happened?  What would you do?  After listening to many, many stories of sexual harassment, here’s my advice to the HR pro when someone walks into your office with a story of harassment:

  1. Listen. Seriously.  Yes, you’re going to have to take notes, but the first goal is to listen.  Take the time to give the person in your office your undivided attention as she or he gets the story out the way they planned to tell you.  A lot of the person’s brain has been totally consumed with how to tell you.
  2. Give the person space. Telling someone about harassment is hard.  Really, really hard.  Shame and lack of self-confidence are so undermined by harassment that finding the courage to tell you, even if they know you well, takes significant effort.  Let the person get the story out how she or he wants to get it out.  Try not to interrupt.
  3. Have tissues. Yes, it is cliché, but trust me, having a box of tissues nearby never hurt anyone, and often, it is a simple offer of tissues that will provide comfort even though you cannot agree with the person.
  4. Explain your role. After you’ve heard the story the way the person wanted to tell you, explain you will have to start an investigation.  During the investigation, you won’t be able to “take sides,” but you will do your best to gather the necessary facts, listen to people with information, and be as thorough as possible.  Tell the person you may hire an outside investigator.
  5. Go through the facts. Explain that because you need information, you will have to ask a bunch of questions even though it might be painful.  (You can empathize that it is painful.  That’s okay.) Then go through the story again.  Ask questions.  Ask for dates, times, and who else she or he thinks you should talk to.  You won’t be able to keep things 100% confidential because you need to investigate – tell the person this.
  6. Take notes. Once you’ve been through your role, you should start taking notes. Please take thorough notes.  If this gets to litigation or a New Yorker story, your notes are going to be placed in front of you on numerous occasions.  Make sure you understand them and can explain them.
  7. Thank. Please thank the person for bringing this information to you.  Thank them for spending the time to do it and the emotional energy.

These are just tips on how to hear about it.  There are so many other things you will need to do after you’ve listened.  Talking to your manager, taking timely and appropriate action, taking a look at your harassment training, and many other things may be what you will do.

As HR folk, we have obligations – not only to our organizations and the people we work with – we have an obligation to our profession.  The New York Times investigation included assessments of the Weinstein Company HR department as weak and ineffective.   We can change that.  We do good for organizations when we speak up, investigate, and facilitate effective actions that prevent and stop this behavior.  We can do it.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

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One thought on “Listening to Harassment

  1. […] Harassment, abuse, scandals, shootings, bribery – the list of ills occurring in the workplace is long and disturbing. The code of silence or unwillingness to deal with warning signs about these ills is just as, if not more, troubling.  Sometimes, HR pros get an inkling about these ills.  Sometimes, we worry about why someone would bring this information to us.  The “why” is interesting – is it to protect their job, get back at someone, they’re just a complainer, or because they have a strange curiosity about other employees?  Hear me out, the “why” isn’t important. […]

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