Effective Oversight Means Sometimes Taking a Second Look

April 10, 2019 Ben DiPietro

News last week that a big tech company is reviewing claims of workplace sexual harassment originally overlooked by its human resources department provides another strong example for people who advocate the need for a strong and open working relationship between HR and the ethics and compliance team.

The situation came to light, according to a report in Quartz, through an email chain of the company’s female employees, who shared stories of unwanted advances, boorish comments and other types of improper and discriminatory behavior. The emails attracted the attention of the head of HR, who promised to individually look into those claims that were passed over.

This is an example of what can happen when HR and ethics and compliance are not working together as closely as they could be. Getting compliance and HR to forge closer partnerships was a topic during a panel discussion I moderated last month at Ethisphere’s Global Ethics Summit.

Getting everyone to understand the importance of having a culture based on ethical values, and the need to be consistent in how employees are treated and communicated with, can help break down any territorial competitiveness or tension that can arise when departments have overlapping responsibilities on many issues, as is the case with HR and E&C, the panelists said.

Part of building trust between the two sides, one of the panelists said, was being open and honest in raising issues and suggesting solutions. That would mean asking HR to explain why it did--or did not--take action in a particular case, and being willing to tell them to take a second look.

A second panelist said she faced a similar issue at her company: Employees were frustrated because HR wasn’t as swift to respond and resolve issues as was the compliance team. By explaining to HR the negative impacts how employees perceive the company, and whether they should fully trust it, compliance was able to work with them to craft a more unified communications strategy.

The email thread reported on by Quartz also exposed issues with the tech company’s training of managers, as many women told of having their concerns diminished, ignored or dismissed. Proper training would mandate managers to treat all allegations seriously, and to investigate in a fair and impartial manner.

Also of note was the fact that much of the bad behavior outlined in the emails occurred with more than just the perpetrator in the room, showing the importance of bystander training, and the need to speak up at the moment a situation looks as though it may cross a line.

Lastly, if employees are resorting to emails to air their frustrations, that's a big sign the organization needs to show through actions that it takes complaints seriously, and will investigate them fully and in a timely fashion, with transparent reporting of the results and any disciplinary actions.

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