This article marks the spring resumption of the ASBPE Ethics Committee’s newsletter, Ethics Update. Every now and then a publication finds itself in the midst of a huge ethical groundswell. That happened at HR Magazine and SHRM Online last year, when a wave of articles about sexual harassment swept the nation. Ethics Update asked SHRM’s Beth Mirza to address how her association dealt with the impact of the spreading scandals. Ethical issues will be a mainstay at ASBPE’s May 10-11 National Conference at Washington, DC’s National Press Club, where Beth will be part of an Ethics Roundtable.—Roy Harris, Interim Committee Chair
The Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017—just five months ago, as of this writing. But it seems like much more than a year since the New York Times and the New Yorker first caught our attention with their stories on it. We’ve been inundated with headlines nearly every day as women and men, famous and unknown, come forward with new allegations of sexual harassment in their workplaces.
As the accusations accumulated—against employers in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the media and government—a theme emerged: Where was HR in all of this? At the Society for Human Resource Management, we wondered that, too.
SHRM Online and HR Magazine have covered this issue for years. And, in fact, the website in July had run a four-part series by Dana Wilke—“Where HR Gets It Wrong”—exploring implications related to controversies at Fox News, Uber and the University of Missouri, among other troubled institutions. But in response to the withering proliferation of news stories we redoubled efforts at gathering resources. Toolkits, sample policies, Q&As, a very popular quiz and news articles featured advice from attorneys and fellow HR professionals. We interviewed employment lawyers, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff, and HR practitioners to get new insight on how the workplace should handle these accusations now that the spotlight on the issue was burning so much more brightly.
Fallout and damage
In some cases reported in the news, the HR department had clearly ignored claims of sexual harassment or covered up for a senior leader’s poor behavior. In other cases, top management discounted HR’s recommendations to discipline the accused. In our coverage we recounted the fallout and damage that companies suffered when they failed to investigate accusations or left a perpetrator of sexual harassment on the job—or worse, dismissed the person who made the claim.
But as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements grew, so did the reports of companies firing star performers accused of sexual misconduct. Slowly the trend changed from announcements of new accusations to announcements of new firings. That made us wonder if, as companies were pressured to act quickly to prove they supported victims of sexual harassment, the accused were now being thrown under the bus. So we reported on that as well.
That’s the fine line that HR has to walk: listening to and reacting appropriately to both the accuser and the accused. And employees have to feel safe enough at work to report misconduct; that isn’t always the case.
Internal soul searching
As for how SHRM altered its views about workplace issues internally, we all did some soul searching. A review of our harassment and workplace romance policies remains underway—something that’s of particular interest to me, since I met and married my husband while we both worked at SHRM.
Our HR staff also posted information about our ethics hotline, and encouraged staff to report any complaints anonymously. Our new president and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., also started speaking out to the mainstream media about harassment at work and testified before the California state legislature on their proposal to rein in the problem in their offices.
Going forward, SHRM Online and HR Magazine will continue to report on the movements that are empowering employees to report sexual and other types of harassment at work. We’ll cover the new training recommendations from the EEOC to prevent harassment before it starts (presciently, an EEOC taskforce found in 2016 that harassment prevention training wasn’t working). Just as sexual harassment was an important issue before The New York Times’ story on Weinstein broke, it will continue to be an issue we stay on top of after it fades out of the mainstream media’s limelight.
Beth Mirza is director of online news operations at the Society for Human Resource Management, where she directs a team of editors responsible for a daily and several weekly newsletters that serve more than 1.3 million subscribers. She has worked at SHRM for more than 17 years, starting as a layout editor and reporter.