Unlike many of the previous Seattle HR Collective MeetUps, August’s presentation came in the form of a panel of three professionals, all from different arms of their companies. It sounds like the setup to some rarefied business joke (an executive, a lawyer, and a HR director all walk into a bar…) but the topic of the afternoon was no parody. The panel consisted of Kristina Bergman, CEO of Integris Software, Don McGowan, General Counsel of Pokemon, and Amelia Ransom, Sr. Director of Engagement & Diversity at Avalara.
An audience numbering in the dozens gathered to hear a discussion regarding the importance of culture and leadership when #MeToo rears its all-too-familiar head and what role HR has when this happens. It was not a place to bash men or to share personal #MeToo stories, though we were given yet another personal Weinstein story from an unlikely source.
How #MeToo is Shaping Conversations at Work
Sadly, even today, harassment and discrimination are insidious in our social and professional cultures and have been present since the outset of modern society. Given the surge of survivor stories and subsequent high-profile takedowns of perpetrators like Nike, Uber, and Weinstein, (and most recently CBS), our society has been feeling the emotional fatigue of the movement despite its inherent importance in our lives. Men are afraid to approach their female coworkers at all, afraid a misconstrued action or misplaced word is going to start a whole ‘thing’ in a way it never has before. Male mentors are failing to even reach out to their female up-and-comers because the threat of them being called a harasser is more important than training the next generation of leaders.
When asked about the evolution of #MeToo and what they consider to be the current working definition, Kristina Bergman shared a story about a company culture that shaped her own early experiences. Her story explained how as CEO of Integris she knew it was critical to put prevention plan in place, in case of harassment by investors or board members. A rule for her Integris employees is a twist of the old ‘do unto others’ adage: “If you wouldn’t do it in front of, to, or around a customer, don’t do it here.” Amelia Ransom, praised the movement for allowing people to see harassment for what it is, and for giving them the words to talk about it. Don McGowan, brought back a beloved meme that echoed Bergman’s own rule: “Would you say that to the Rock?” He’s a big guy so be careful what you might say to offend him.
What Is HR’s Role In a Toxic Environment?
Next we broached the topic of why HR has sometimes failed at managing abuse and taking appropriate measures to rectify a toxic culture. Navigating #MeToo concerns can be tricky, even for the most savvy and well intended HR professionals, especially if they lack executive support and sponsorship. It has less to do with HR’s intentions and much more to do with the fact that in many cases HR simply doesn’t have the power to do anything at all. They are not police officers sent to enforce standards of a respectful work environment, nor can they fix a problem inherent in the company culture itself. All three panelists agreed that culture is created at the top, that C-suite and other senior leaders must be challenged and held accountable for the safety and fairness of their company and the culture they create. A healthy company culture should help the entire community thrive, and should not tolerate unproductive or unwanted behaviors.
Everyone Owns Culture
In the end, the role of HR is to educate their colleagues, role model good behavior, and hold leadership accountable for the culture they create. On top of being a distraction from business goals, #MeToo complaints are bad for business, as proven by the experience of so many companies who are shedding top executives who perpetuated abuse and sexism in the highest ranks of the organization . The mindset of “if you have an issue, go to HR” needs to change. Instead of relying on one person or department as the keeper of culture, let’s hold all leaders equally accountable. Make it incumbent on everybody in the company, from HR to legal to C-suite and beyond, to be responsible for both fixing problems as they occur and preventing them before they arise.