Sexual harassment cases leave HR in a quandary

MS EMERY LINDSLEY
MS EMERY LINDSLEY

Human resource departments caught in bind between helping victims and defending firm

NEW YORK • Ms Emery Lindsley was addressing her food and beverage staff at the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel in Texas in 2012 when a corporate executive suddenly placed his hand over her mouth to keep her from speaking.

The executive then began commenting on the appearance of a woman on Ms Lindsley's staff, even asking if the staff member had a steady relationship with her boyfriend, Ms Lindsley recalled.

As she had been taught at the company's mandatory anti-harassment training, Ms Lindsley reported the executive's actions to the human resources (HR) department.

"But (the HR executive) ignored me,'' said Ms Lindsley, who made these allegations in a lawsuit she filed against Omni Hotels & Resorts and its parent company in October. "She didn't even write it down. She didn't seem to take it seriously."

Her experience illustrates the complicated role that HR departments play in harassment cases.

The recent outpouring of complaints from women about mistreatment in the workplace has included numerous accounts of being ignored, stymied or retaliated against by HR units - accounts that portray them as part of the problem.

COLD RESPONSE

But she ignored me... She didn't even write it down. She didn't seem to take it seriously.

MS EMERY LINDSLEY, who has filed a lawsuit against Omni Hotels & Resorts and its parent company, of the HR executive who heard her complaint.

The lack of trust manifests itself as a self-perpetuating quandary: Women are hesitant to approach HR departments, which in turn cite the absence of complaints as proof of a respectful workplace.

A study last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that of all the options available to workers experiencing harassment, the least common response was to take formal action.

Experts point to several contributing factors. HR departments are responsible for fielding employee complaints, but also work for a company that faces potential liability - a conflict of interest.

Conducting an investigation into allegations against a top executive can also be hazardous to the careers of HR officers.

The result can often be that HR staff are more inclined to suppress allegations than investigate them.

"HR's client is the company, which means that HR is supposed to protect the company's interests," Ms Cynthia Calvert, a discrimination lawyer and senior adviser to the Centre for WorkLife Law in San Francisco, said in an e-mail.

The various HR directors Ms Lindsley spoke with rarely interviewed people she had said were witnesses to the behaviour. She also said there appeared to have been no confidentiality in the system - her boss and others were aware that she had complained about them.

In a statement, a spokesman for Omni and its parent company, TRT Holdings, said: "While we do not comment on active litigation, we want to be clear that we dispute Ms Lindsley's allegations and will defend against her lawsuit."

While many HR executives would undoubtedly prefer to respond more vigorously to harassment complaints, the fact that they work for the company places significant limits on them. For example, HR officers must carefully parse their words when speaking with accusers for fear that their remarks could later be introduced as evidence in court.

Even if the HR department finds that the accused should be disciplined or fired, it typically has no independent authority to take action.

"If you're looking at terminating someone who is very valuable to the company, that puts the HR person at risk, too," said HR compliance consultant Kate Bischoff.

More often, the women who come forward with complaints say they wind up being ostracised or made to feel uncomfortable in their jobs. Some eventually quit or are pushed out of the company.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Sexual harassment cases leave HR in a quandary'. Print Edition | Subscribe