HCM Tech Community Treads Cautiously Into New Era of Sexual Harassment

Sexual Abuse

Employers, engagement specialists and HCM technology vendors don’t expect to see dramatic shifts in their approach to addressing sexual harassment any time soon.

Sexual HarassmentDespite recent headlines of high-ranking men using their positions to pressure women into quid pro quo situations, vendors, client-side tech leaders and HR professionals aren’t positioning technology as a solution to the problem. This stands in contrast to late 2016 and early 2017, when numerous discussions were held about leveraging technology to help employers address the increased recognition of diversity challenges that followed Donald Trump’s election.

While most people we spoke with believe technology could be developed to help HR address, or even predict, incidents of harassment, “any vendor who says they can help avoid a Matt Lauer type of situation is full of crap,” said a (female) manager at one solutions provider. A senior corporate HRIS manager agreed. “My first thought was there’s some promise in predictive analytics, but how would I have used analytics to predict Matt Lauer’s an asshole?” she asked.

Vendors, HR leaders and engagement specialists alike suggest there’s a limit to how much HCM technology can do to resolve such a deeply ingrained cultural and societal issue. And while solutions providers cite a number of possibilities based on everything from data-mining to social-media scraping, they point out that such approaches raise numerous questions about privacy, fairness and the law. “It’s a slippery slope,” one said.


While many product teams have at least informally discussed the problem among themselves, their customers have remained quiet.


Interestingly, while many product teams have at least informally discussed the problem among themselves, their customers have remained quiet. “To be honest, it hasn’t come up once,” said one product manager, a woman. “I think people don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole, or recognize that it could be a possibility in their organizations.”

That dovetails with comments from several practitioners, who acknowledged an unspoken pressure from senior leaders, who’d prefer to let the matter work its way through reporting channels, such as EAP hotlines, that are currently in place. Unless there’s direct and compelling evidence of bad things happening, they don’t want to go fishing for a need to address such a delicate—not to mention legally fraught—issue.

Privacy and Other Human Complications

Despite the C suite’s reticence, few HR practitioners discount the possibility that harassment is taking place, and going unreported, in their organization. At the same time, many are skeptical that their existing anti-harassment efforts are as effective as they might be.

Numerous companies have sexual harassment policies in place, conduct annual surveys on workplace issues and maintain hotlines that employees can call to report problems outside of their company’s regular organizational structure. And while one (female) vendor manager suggests anonymous polling features might “help give HR teams a sense of what the reality is across their workforce,” our client-side manager notes that employees are cynical about surveys. “They just don’t believe their responses are anonymous,” she said.


Few HR practitioners discount the possibility that harassment is taking place, and going unreported, in their organization.


Such human factors present a huge complication. “We can provide tools, but that’s about it,” said one vendor. “We can help free up HR’s time to develop great leaders and programs, but not much more.” And, several sources noted, technical tools don’t offer much value “unless the customers turn them on.”

Reportedly, some businesses are creating tools that allow employees or witnesses to bypass traditional processes and report incidents of harassment directly to company and HR leaders as well as the staffers designated to investigate such situations. Their idea seems to be that a wider distribution of complaints will lead to greater transparency and increased pressure to actually follow through on each report.

While many women’s advocates like such ideas, a number of HR managers and vendors—men and women both—worry that if they’re not properly thought through, such systems could work against the policies and procedures an organization has already implemented. Others suggest careers could be damaged by anonymous, unsubstantiated claims that gain wide distribution before they’ve been vetted.

Learning Where Harassment Lurks

Such concerns increase the difficulty of fashioning a technical approach that not only addresses, but prevents, incidents of quid pro quo harassment. “There’s so much information in the systems that you should be able to mine emails and other data for red flags,” said one vendor. That may be true, but our corporate HR tech director warned that with the growing emphasis on data privacy around the world, “more data will become more restricted from both the HR and IT perspectives. That means the options may be narrowing.” She pointed to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, as an example.


In the short term, the most pragmatic solution may be to pair data analysis with pre-emptive education. 


“Perhaps the technology solution is gathering HR data globally and looking at patterns on an individual-by-individual basis. But here’s that slippery slope again,” she said. Plus, she noted that accusations aren’t convictions, and so may not surface on background checks. And even if they did, she wondered, how many senior executives are given background checks in the first place?

In the short term, the most pragmatic solution may be to pair data analysis with pre-emptive education. The right analytics might uncover warning signs, which could in turn be used to integrate the appropriate training into at-risk areas of the company.

Another vendor’s product director, while saying she hadn’t been asked about technology solutions, has fielded three separate requests for coaching men who’ve been accused of sexual harassment, “to help them change their ways.” In each case, neither the employee nor company were being sued. “My guess is this type of coaching will become more popular,” she said.

One thing most everyone agrees on is that HR departments will be more proactive in combatting sexual harassment during 2018. One vendor suggests they can spotlight the issue by requiring both the organization and employees to review and renew their harassment policy on an annual basis.

Although no one was aware of any employer now including a survey question asking whether its workers have ever been sexually pressured by a manager or executive, at least one source was “willing to bet” either her vice president of compliance or CHRO will include such a query next year. Admittedly, anonymous responses are of limited value, she said, but they can at least alert HR that improper behavior is taking place. But here again, we circle back to the workforce’s willingness to believe whether their feedback actually is anonymous and leadership’s reluctance to seek out situations they’d rather not know about.

If nothing else, one organizational expert said, HR must have good, centralized technology in place that can capture incidents as they occur and uncover questionable patterns. “That way if the same manager or employee is moved around, the system could recognize the pattern of repeated offenses,” she said. If similar complaints involving the same manager were lodged and resolved, even years apart at distant locations and in different parts of the organization, HR would at least have the ability to use the disparate incidents to recognize the behavior.

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