A Columbia University researcher complained about unwanted sexual advances from a tenured professor. He responded by trying to crush her career.
Economics researcher Enrichetta Ravina was subject to retaliation after reporting inappropriate behavior by Professor Geert Bekaert, a New York federal jury found in July. Bekaert smeared her in emails to colleagues, calling her “unstable,” “incredibly evil,” and “schizophrenic” and obstructed her path toward tenure. Ravina could win as much as $31 million from Bekaert and the university depending on the outcome of a separate trial on damages, to be held at a later date.
In both academia and the corporate world, powerful figures can wield their influence to cover up abuse, or retaliate against victims who speak out. All too frequently it happens with the complicity of the organization’s highest ranks. And, it often happens because the place where you’re encouraged to bring workplace complaints to first, the human resources department, is not really looking out for your interests.
Take Ernst & Young tax partner Jessica Casucci. In April, Casucci filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she was groped and harassed by a fellow tax partner in front on colleagues while on a business trip in Orlando, Florida.
Although she reported the incident to HR, the alleged groper, John Martinkat, was “subject to little or no discipline and suffered zero repercussions,” according to the complaint. Meanwhile, Casucci was “forced to abandon client relationships, decline work on certain projects and rebuild her entire book of business from scratch.”
It wasn’t until after she filed her complaint, and received media attention for her case that the firm took action. In May, she reached a settlement with the company, and Martinkat was fired.
Casucci was initially told to “trust the firm” to handle her concerns, but clearly, she could not.
If you’re facing similar circumstances in a workplace environment, here are some reasons why you, too, might not want to put your faith in the HR department, no matter what the company might tell you.
HR works for the company, not for you
As Newsweek pointed out in How Human Resources if Failing Women Victims of Sexual Harassment, a common misconception about HR is that it exists to be a resource for employees. But in reality, a primary focus of HR is damage control and protecting the employer from legal problems. In instances when workers do make complaints, the incident is more likely to be swept under the rug than result in a positive outcome for the accuser. In many instances, “they’re sent back to their desks to work alongside their harassers as though nothing happened.” If the employee persists in their complaint, retaliation or other forms of termination could result (even though that is generally illegal under employment law).
HR exists in a bubble swaddled with red tape
Even on workplace issues that are not related to sexual harassment, HR can be supremely unhelpful. One writer has described HR as “at best, a necessary evil -- and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change.” HR workers live for processes and red tape, sometimes erecting needless obstacles to solving problems.
Situated near the top of the organization, people who work in HR also inhabit a bubble and can lose touch with what’s happening at the lower levels of the company. They often perceive the environments and the cultures of their organizations as being far more positive than they actually are.
In a survey reported by Forbes, 83 percent of HR workers believe their employees intend to stay on for another year, double the percentage of employees who said they planned to stay. About 80 percent of HR workers believe their employees would recommend the company to a friend, however, only 38 percent of the employees agreed.
HR doesn’t want to make waves
No one in HR wins an “employee of the year” award for trumpeting an ugly personnel problem at the firm, especially a legally messy one like a manager groping a subordinate. The primary responsibility of HR is to attract good workers and keep the ship on its course.
"Our job in HR is to retain the best and brightest talent and also to handle employee complaints," said a former human resources employee who is now working as a consultant wrote in Vox. "When these conflict and the best and brightest talent is the harasser, HR is incentivized to protect the harasser."
HR provides very little useful advice
Not only is HR bad at handling complaints when they arise but it’s also terrible at prevention. “Cartoonish” and unrealistic training modules that are designed to combat workplace harassment don’t do much to educate workers. At best, they are ignored, and at worst they can have the perverse effect of encouraging more bad behavior.
Researchers call it “symbolic compliance” when organizations promote training programs that do little more than provide a show of compliance with legal requirements without addressing underlying problems. According to The Guardian, those cheesy HR anti-harassment videos can activate feelings of defensiveness among men, and make them more likely to view others within typical stereotypes or lash out by slapping a coworker’s behind.
HR is more worried about their own jobs than yours
To clarify this point once more, HR does not work for you. It works for the company. The people you’re speaking with are more concerned about pleasing their bosses, and ultimately the CEO and other senior management, far more than pleasing you. Doing their jobs well means that ultimately the company’s leadership is happy with the outcome and that the company continues to function profitably.
Your happiness is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. “When an employee makes a complaint of harassment, HR has an obligation to report it to the company’s higher-ups, who then make a judgment — often not about what’s to be done with the alleged harasser, but about what’s to be done with the alleged victim,” according to Newsweek.
Blow the whistle on sexual harassment. If you believe you are a victim of this conduct, before you speak to HR or anyone else, give us a call for a confidential and no-cost attorney opinion on your specific situation. We can protect your job, stop the conduct, and file a state or federal lawsuit for substantial financial damages.
Call us now to protect your rights: 877.858.8018 or [hidden email]