When HR’s the Target of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
It was my first “real HR” job at a small manufacturing company after leaving staffing. About a month or so into it, the VP of Operations called me into his office. He was obviously nervous and started stumbling through a rehearsed monologue on what a great job I was doing. Then he dropped the bomb:
“The guys in the shop are making comments about … your nipples. Now, I told them to cut it out — but I would hate for something to happen or someone to say something to you and it be a big mess. I would rather jump out the window than talk to you about this, but I didn’t feel right not saying something so you can be aware of it and … I don’t know … do something, if you can. Because I don’t want to your reputation undermined and I don’t want to lose any employees of this company.”
I was dumbfounded. And speechless. I think I nodded and left. On the drive home I realized …
Oh shit! This dude just told me to tape my nipples!!
Going Beyond the Work Dress Code
I got angry! How dare he say that to me? What kind of creepy perv was he? Is this an work dress code issue or more? Then I got scared. Would anyone believe me if I told? Who would I even tell? Then I got sad. How did I choose such a crappy workplace? Who would hire me now? Then a friend of mine asked, “Well, is it true?”
Um … I plead The Fifth on that.
When Nipple Tape and Workplace Conflict Collide
What I will say is that I didn’t tape my nipples. I didn’t file a complaint, and I didn’t sue the company. I didn’t quit the job, but I did gain a whole new respect for and perspective on Human Resources. Conflict resolution or being the recipient of conflict especially for HR isn’t fun.
HR often lives in the cushy condo at the corner of “Rock” and “Hard Place” (no pun intended). We have the thankless job of protecting the employee and the employer at the same time. And there are times where carrying out those duties gets really, really uncomfortable.
In this case, the VP had to act as HR. Knowing the risks and how mortifying it would be for both of us, he took the chance to have that conversation with me. He could’ve let the chatter continue and let my reputation be damaged in the process. Or he could’ve just told the guys to stop and never say anything to me about it. Or he could’ve just waited until an inappropriate comment was made, acted surprised, lost good employees and opened the company to serious liability in the process … Instead, he chose to protect them, me, himself and the company by telling the whole, ugly, uncomfortable truth.
That’s Not Just Good HR. It’s Damn Good HR
That is damn good HR, in my book. And it’s pretty good management and leadership, too.
It took a tremendous amount of courage to talk with me about that – the kind that HR is often accused of sorely lacking. We spend so much time afraid of getting sued or rocking the boat that we don’t speak up or speak out about much of anything … which usually lands us in the very trouble we were trying to avoid.
Well, if we’re going to be damned if we do and damned if we don’t, I say we might as well figure out a way to tell the whole, ugly, uncomfortable truth to the people we work with and work for! I’m not talking about throwing laws, policies and all professional decorum out the window. I am talking about taking the initiative to find a good way to say the things no one wants to say so everyone in the employee – employer relationship remains safe and able to thrive.
Are you up for the challenge?
Buzz Rooney has over 10 years experience as an HR practitioner in the production, manufacturing and retail industries. She currently works in HR with employee relations, compensation & benefits, COBRA, leave of absence and compliance. Buzz is also a part-time HR consultant offering basic management coaching/training. She’s a single mom with 2 children living in North Carolina. You can connect with her on Twitter as @thebuzzonhr or her blog, The Buzz on HR.