Closing The Gap

Why HR pros from Apple and Netflix say the C-suite needs to address #MeToo at work

As reports of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace continue, there has been an increased focus on the role of human resources. At the Weinstein Company, the HR department was considered "weak," while at Vice, a former employee said that she fell out of favor with the company after reporting sexual harassment to HR.

But HR pros say that this increased focus on their teams is misplaced. Instead, many argue that HR departments are simply a reflection of a company's culture — HR can only flex as much muscle as company leaders will allow.

In other words, the real power and responsibility rests with those at the top.

"[#MeToo] is all of our issue, it's society's issue. But in the workplace it is not HR's issue," says Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix. "Particularly, it's management's issue."

Take Back The Workplace March And #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California.
Chelsea Guglielmino | FilmMagic | Getty Images
Take Back The Workplace March And #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California.

Yet HR is often touted as a confidential recourse for employees who are mistreated, which is why many find it troubling that women who have experienced sexual harassment at work say they felt discouraged from speaking with HR personnel because they feared retaliation. In fact, a study shows that 75 percent of employees face retaliation when they speak up.

Still, McCord emphasizes that employees should be able to talk to anyone in management and get the same result they'd receive from HR. "That's not an HR problem, that's a cultural problem," she tells CNBC Make It. "You either tolerate that s---t or you don't. Period. End of story."

Denise Young Smith, who previously served as Apple's head of worldwide human resources and is now an executive-in-residence at Cornell Tech, has a similar take. While HR is one of the levers of recourse employees have within an organization, she says, employees should also feel comfortable speaking with any leader, all the way up to the CEO of the company.

"Everyone owns the responsibility for a culture that is intolerant of these kinds of behaviors," says Smith. "You must implement processes, and levers and a culture of trust."

That's where leaders come in, she says. Company heads establish the organization's core values, the business environment and set the course for what's acceptable in the workplace.

As employers rethink their company culture in light of recent sexual harassment allegations, it's critical that they treat the work environment as a core business strategy, not just as an issue over on the HR side, says Tina Tchen, the lawyer spearheading the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and Michelle Obama's former chief of staff.

"These are core corporate governance issues," she tells CNBC Make It. The "tone" must start at the very top and flow through the entire organization.

Like McCord and Smith, Tchen says that this "business imperative" must stem from a company's executives, investors and board members, rather than an organization's employee relations team. "Most successful business strategies on getting companies ahead are those that are invested in and led by the top," says the attorney. "This business strategy is no different."

Most important, she notes that HR teams must also feel empowered by company leaders to effectively do their job and act as champions for employees.

"[HR] needs to sit in a place within the organization where it has the power and the accountability to management, not to hold down any unhappy employees, but to do fair and impartial investigations of employee complaints," says Tchen.

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