HR as Custodian of Behavior

Ron Jones

What is the role of HR when the behaviors of leaders transgress the bounds of decency? It is often very easy in an organization to take disciplinary action against low ranking staff. Breaches of email or Internet usage policies, bullying, workplace harassment and other behaviors that run counter to the values of an organization are often easy to resolve when the individual is relatively low down on the organizational food-chain. Terminations can be instituted with very little impact on the overall direction and focus of the organization and are usually met with overwhelming support from the rest of the staff.

Management finds it easy to explain their actions in these instances on the basis that the employee has breached a standard so fundamental to proper workplace behavior that it is justified: the action demonstrates management’s commitment to providing a safe workplace and is exercising its duty of care to protect and safeguard the interests of all staff.

What if the individual is higher up the food-chain? What if they have been identified as future leadership material? What role does HR play in these situations? It is easy to say that it must act without fear or favor and that the senior employee should be disciplined in exactly the same way as any other employee.

Some time ago I asked a CEO what the company would do if a junior staff member accessed pornography while at work. He was quite clear that of course the employee should be dismissed as the company had very clear rules about such matters. I then asked what if it was a higher level position in a technical area, and was provided with the same response. When I asked what would happen if it was a senior sales manager I was advised that they would probably have been stressed and should be counseled.

What if the sales manager was harassing or bullying another staff member who then complained?

Damaged Relationship

I was recently consulted by a senior executive in a large well-established company that they had an instance of harassment/bullying where most of the behavior occurred through email. HR was called in to investigate and found no case to answer. The "investigation" was undertaken by interviewing the complainant and the alleged perpetrator and a conclusion drawn that the claimed behavior had not occurred. At no stage were the emails reviewed!

HR failed a fundamental test: it sought to reflect the power relationships within the business and proceeded on an assumption that the senior employee couldn’t possibly have behaved inappropriately, otherwise they wouldn’t have been promoted.

When the complainant objected to the finding, a second review was conducted and this did examine the emails: as a consequence the senior manager’s employment was terminated.
Aside from the damage done to the employee, the relationship between HR and the staff has been irreparably damaged. Other employees will be reluctant to use HR as a vehicle for raising concerns or issues and the organization will be damaged as a result.

HR has a responsibility to exhibit moral courage – to challenge and deal effectively with inappropriate behaviors irrespective of the perpetrator. If HR is not the custodian of values and behaviors – who is?