ELISE HU, HOST:
The discussions are happening in boardrooms and by water coolers as companies, including NPR, oust executives accused of sexual harassment. Many are rethinking how complaints are handled. One question is whether human resources departments are willing or able to do the job. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Sophia Dean was 25 years old working a dream job cooking in a fancy restaurant when she says a co-worker started harassing her.
SOPHIA DEAN: He would corner me and, like, grab my arm, and he was just insisting over and over again that he was in love with me and that he...
SMITH: Dean didn't want to report it to her human resources department. She feared they'd see her as the problem.
DEAN: I was worried they'd rather move someone away who's whistleblowing, like don't want any scandal, don't want any issues, don't want anything, so I was worried that I would be the one punished.
SMITH: Eventually, the harassment got so bad she did go to HR, but she says they basically told her to ignore it.
DEAN: You know, we're sorry that that happened to you. But, you know, that's the way that kitchens can be.
SMITH: A month later, Dean quit and got a new job only to experience similar harassment there and, she says, the exact same response from HR.
DEAN: To me, it confirmed that they would much rather sweep it under the rug. And I felt like they were for the company rather than for the employees.
SMITH: She's hardly alone in her misgivings. Just about a quarter of employees who experience sexual harassment report it, according to the federal government, and even some who've worked in human resources, like HR consultant Cynthia Shapiro, say employees are right to be wary.
CYNTHIA SHAPIRO: HR people are taught to smile and say, oh, yes, you know, you've done the right thing, and you should come to us, and we're going to investigate this. And it sounds like the company's on your side, but it's not always the case.
SMITH: Shapiro says HR has an inherent conflict. Their job is to protect the company, she says, not the employee.
SHAPIRO: They will help you as long as your interests don't run counter to the interests of the company because you're not paying their salary. The company is. And there are many HR departments that operate under an edict to shut you down in order to protect the company.
SMITH: It comes down to a cold calculus, Shapiro says. A firm might keep some star employees despite alleged misconduct as long as their value outweighs their risk. But that cost-benefit analysis is quickly changing.
LISA BROWN ALEXANDER: You know, it's a new day. You know, the exposure, the damage to your corporate brand is immeasurable. We can't afford to ignore it.
SMITH: HR consultant Lisa Brown Alexander says companies that didn't get it before do now. But she says reports of the evil HR lady, as she puts it, are exaggerated. She says most HR professionals see themselves as having dual loyalties to the company and the employee.
ALEXANDER: I don't know any HR people who would just turn a blind eye. Anyone worth their weight in salt knows that they have an ethical and professional obligation to conduct an objective, efficient investigation.
SMITH: Still, Alexander concedes outsourcing HR to an independent third party is a cleaner model, in the same way hiring an outside law firm to investigate complaints can boost trust in the process. But National Women's Law Center president Fatima Goss Graves cautions outsourcing can create issues of its own.
FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: I think the idea of just abandoning HR departments as the place to go, I think that, you know, that's too easy of an answer. We don't want to let employers off the hook to really make their HR places welcoming places.
SMITH: Another kind of hybrid model leaves HR in charge but puts an independent, outside counselor in the employees' corner. Toby Hervey, CEO of one such service called Bravely, says many who've used it wouldn't have otherwise gone to HR.
TOBY HERVEY: We offer an alternative starting point that's totally confidential, totally safe because it all lives outside the walls of the company. And we try to be that objective source of truth and a neutral perspective on what the company policies are.
SMITH: Hervey says many companies actually foot the bill for the service, hoping it helps with employee retention and helps nip problems in the bud. Another option for employees frustrated with HR is to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Traffic to the agency's website spiked up to eightfold recently. But the EEOC is chronically backlogged, and it's not an option for independent contractors like actresses who also don't have HR departments. And that's one reason many are opting for a more direct way to get through to the C-suite.
LAURIE RUETTIMANN: We all have megaphones right now, and we can take some power back.
SMITH: HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann says women have got the message that many companies only oust longtime perpetrators after they're publicly outed.
RUETTIMANN: I know a lot of people are really skeptical of the #MeToo movement right now, but the power in that is that it hopefully encourages another individual to be brave, and then that can snowball in a positive way.
SMITH: Employees are also posting anonymously on websites like glassdoor.com, a job search site that includes company reviews. One, for example, says sexual assault is rampant and HR doesn't care. Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli says it's an effective way to hold companies accountable and to warn other employees as long as it doesn't skid out into a kind of vigilante justice that tramples the rights of the accused.
PETER CAPPELLI: You know, there are a lot of people who are wrongly accused, and a system that can damage people's reputations just based on being accused would be troublesome.
SMITH: But Cappelli says outing the companies who are not taking allegations seriously does make sense, especially when complaints are getting nowhere with HR. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.