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The Importance of Transparency in Human Resources

Feb 22, 2019
Deb Muller

So much of what goes on in HR is a black box. You file a sexual harassment complaint and then…what? Did something happen? If so, what?

Members of the HR Acuity Employee Relations Roundtable recently shared how they are providing more information to the complainant at the end of the investigation (i.e., “we are taking care of the situation” is just not cutting it anymore). This used to be considered a best practice in HR, but people want more information today.

People generally like privacy when it benefits them and hate it when it keeps them in the dark. In today’s open culture, where people shout intimate details about their lives on Twitter while also moaning about Silicon Valley selling our privacy, it’s an even more difficult road to follow. And, of course, if you keep things too secret, your employees may share their concerns on social media and make your company look bad in the process.

It’s Time for Better HR Transparency

What goes on in that black box? What is a reasonable reaction to a complaint about sexual harassment? Google recently disclosed that they terminated 48 employees for sexual harassment. This came about after protests from employees, who were angry that Andy Rubin had received a massive severance package as part of his termination.

Employees need to understand what goes on when they file a complaint, or when they get a raise. The processes should be clear, even if the exact details for each case is not clear. Not every claim of harassment is founded and people will take sides in any dispute. Here are some guidelines on how to be transparent and still protect the privacy of victims.

Every employee should know how to report sexual harassment (or other illegal behavior, like racial discrimination). You sometimes have to fire good people who just aren’t good at their jobs. If you’re reorganizing the business, or are losing money, or some other business-related decision, you may have to let someone go. If someone is a bully, you’ll do more damage to your business if you allow them to continue.

New hire orientation should contain details on how to report bad behavior and employees should be reminded regularly. You want this to be extremely easy to report. It’s far better to receive numerous “I’m not sure if this counts as harassment” reports then it is to miss one big case. And, remember, harassment can (and does) happen to old and young, male and female, black and white, and the powerful and the intern.

Every employee should understand what happens after they report an incident. “Thanks so much for telling me,” isn’t enough in today’s day and age. Many sexual harassment complaints aren’t serious enough to result in termination, so the employee never sees what happens. But, they should know exactly what will happen.

There should be no mystery, whatsoever. If you file a complaint, the above steps will happen, every single time.

What Does Circling Back Look Like?

This is something that companies have not focused on in the past. For whatever reason, HR wanted to protect the privacy of all involved–including the accused. As a result, you end up with extreme cases, like Les Moonves at CBS, where people who complained were offered severance packages and shipped out the door, while Moonves kept his behavior up.

While a nice severance package does shut up a lot of complainers, in the #MeToo era, it’s not a guarantee of long term silence. And, more importantly, it allows your bad actors to continue acting badly.

Your company needs to make it clear that sexual harassment is never, ever tolerated. Not from the janitor and not from the rising star. In order to make this happen, you have to inform people about what happened.

Every person that makes a complaint gets follow up information. Does it need to be filled with explicit details? No. Does it need to state clearly the final determination? Yes.

Annually, you should take a lead from Google, and issue a report that tells people how many complaints were filed and that they were investigated and the following consequences meted out. There’s no need to name names at this level, but it lets people know that bad behavior won’t be coddled.

This new transparency will protect the company in the long run. Yes, you may lose a star performer now, but you’ll prevent numerous harassment complaints, and you may get tomorrow’s star performer to behave properly from the get-go. People behave badly because they can. Once you make it so they can’t, life gets better for everyone.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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