What are we to make of recent events at the Human Rights Commission, our moral guardians of discrimination, equal employment opportunity and harassment?
A recently upheld sexual harassment complaint against the Commission’s CFO has resulted in a written warning, some anti-harassment counselling and a written apology to the complainant, an unpaid American intern. The CFO also took it upon himself to email an apology to all the staff, naming the complainant and suggesting they talk directly to him for his account of events if they had any questions.
It’s the Commission’s third sexual harassment complaint since 2013.
The CFO has been publicly named by the New Zealand media and the Minister of Justice has ordered an independent review into the Commission’s culture and processes for dealing with sexual harassment.
From what is in the public domain, it seems closer to an assault. The intern concerned quit the Commission unhappy at how her complaint was handled.
The CFO remains in his job. You can hear the Chief Commissioner’s somewhat defensive interview on Radio NZ this week and make up your own mind whether this seems the right decision.
My biggest question, regardless of whether he “misread the signals,” is why the CFO of the high profile Human Rights Commission thought it was OK to hit on an intern at the end of a leaving party?
Meanwhile, we’ve also been reading about sexual misconduct at one of our top law firms, Russell McVeagh, concerning “serious sexual allegations involving law students.” These events happened a couple of years ago but have recently been made public by former staff members. Two male staff are said to have left the firm after an investigation.
Russell McVeagh’s board have also just announced an independent review of their processes to see what they can learn from the events. By all accounts the firm have taken significant steps to address the shortcomings with their culture since then.
I don’t need to remind you what’s been happening across the world in recent times and I trust the outcome of both reviews will be made public.
But here is my issue. Surely, we are now in an enlightened age where we should have zero tolerance to any form of sexual harassment in our workplaces? There should be no grey areas, nowhere to hide, no cover ups. This should particularly be the case where senior leaders are concerned. The message should be that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you work or how well you do your job.
The most unforgivable thing you can do as a leader is to abuse the power and trust that comes with that office. This is where HR have to stand up and be counted and call out this behaviour. This includes taking complaints seriously, ensuring a full investigation is conducted and dealing with the issue quickly, objectively, sensitively but decisively. We must not and must never be complicit after the event.
There is no place in our workplaces for people in positions of power harassing students and young professionals, or indeed anyone, in this way. As someone who helps run an internship programme for HR and marketing students, I am appalled to think we could ever have any of our students in a position where they would have to deal with sexual harassment. No one in their first real job should be put into a position where they feel they have to make a formal complaint.
Our workplace sexual harassment policies need to be very simple and to the point:
“We have zero tolerance towards any form of sexual misconduct. Be aware that should an allegation against you be upheld after an investigation, you will lose your job and your right to anonymity.”
The lawyers will no doubt tell us that’s a step to far. But it makes a clear statement. It is serious misconduct, no more no less. Black and white. There should be no scales of offending and therefore no shades of grey.