HR Is (Still) Battling #MeToo Challenges

A trio of recent events exposes how some firms still have catching up to do on this critical issue.

The MeToo era may have laid bare how many organizations have a long way to go to create a harassment-free workforce, but the last few days has shown where some of the toughest challenges lie: the human resources department.

In less than a week, the public has learned about issues that started with complaints to HR that ended up either unsatisfactorily resolved, tarnished the reputation of the firm, or both. Experts say that the broad issue comes down to HR not always having the right priorities or leadership. “HR can sometimes be too aggressive in being business partners and have lost sight of being employee advocates,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The latest news spans industries and georaphies. In the United Kingdom, a mutual fund executive won a major cash settlement from her company after she refused to sign a gag order about her claims of sexual harassment at work. Then there was the board of an American firm that hired a CEO but wasn’t informed that he had an outstanding complaint of sexual harassment at his previous employer.

When the balance leans too much in favor of business results at the expense of employees, it can sometimes lead to problems. For instance, a hard-driving boss may get results but may eventually cross the line of what is acceptable or even legal. That’s when things can go wrong. “Burning the cultural furniture today may get immediate results, but in the long term that isn’t good for the business,” says Porter. Again, it’s about balancing business needs with those of the employees. “It’s really about productivity over time,” he says.

Experts say that some HR departments still lack credibility with business leaders. “HR doesn’t always get the respect it needs,” says Dési Kimmins, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s leadership development for EMEA. That, in turn, can influence how HR responds to events. For example, HR may not take a firm enough stand on inappropriate workplace behavior if it doesn’t already have the credibility within the company, she says.

That lack of credibility is partly a problem of corporations not seeing the need for strong HR leadership. While the top executives always understand that it is essential to have top-notch talent in marketing and finance, that isn’t always the same for HR. “Organizations tend to underinvest in getting the right HR people,” Kimmins says.

That common lack of understanding can lead a firm to skimp on HR salaries, which is a mistake, because doing so means potentially missing out on top talent. “Because of the complexity of the role and the skills required to manage stakeholders, it is essential to have high-quality people,” says Kimmins. Getting a strong HR leader can help address the matter, she adds. “If you have a really good HR leader, they will not suffer complacency or not having the right staff."