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UB prof has advice for companies on tackling workplace harassment

Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Bill O'Reilly.

Seemingly every week, powerful people are getting fired over allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.

Time magazine named "the silence breakers" its Person of the Year, crediting them with starting "a national reckoning over the prevalence of sexual harassment." Companies are being forced to evaluate their policies and response.

University at Buffalo professor Prasad Balkundi sees a problem lurking at many employers. Too many of them, he said, have undercut the human resources department that ought to steer efforts to prevent and confront sexual harassment in the workplace.

Balkundi, chair and associate professor in the organization and human resources department at the UB School of Management, talked about the rise in allegations, how human resources operations have changed and the risks companies face if they fail to confront the problem.

Q: Why have we seen a surge in these allegations?

A: I was looking at some of the studies on sexual harassment, and it appears to go in waves. The last set of really strong academic research occurred in 2006, 2007. And then we've had a little bit of a gap. And now we're seeing this surge because the phenomenon is sort of coming back. I think one possible explanation is that there's a wave going on, it keeps coming back.

I think part B is, the current political climate we are in, especially the (Access Hollywood) tape, there was this pent-up frustration which just like a pressure cooker opened up. One sub-explanation could be that the women's liberation movement felt defeated with Hillary Clinton losing, and this is their way of coming back and supporting each other, saying, 'You've gone through this, stand up together.'

Q: With all of these revelations, do you think companies will tackle the problem more aggressively?

A: Let's look at one specific company that has been in the media, and that is Uber. It had this "bro" type of a culture, a lot of sexual harassment, a very sexually hostile environment. They tried rectifying it by bringing in female board members, they in fact brought in the new CEO. These are much deeper, structural issues. And the one department that was equipped to handle this was the (human resources) department.

We are seeing two trends right now. One trend is, more and more H.R. departments are disintegrating and they're appearing in different forms. Companies are expecting line managers to do more H.R. functions. A lot of stuff is going online and into (artificial intelligence). For example, one of the winners of 43North was an (artificial intelligence) system for recruiting, which typically would have been done by an H.R. executive. And many of these [functions] are being outsourced, like compensation, all these things, to consultants.

Basically, what's happening is, you've hollowed out that one department that needs to be on top of sexual harassment issues, and being proactive about it. Instead, what's going to happen is, you're going to have issues, cases will come up, and it will just get short circuited directly to the legal track, because you become more reactive.

I think the smart companies will realize that this has to be taken head on, and just short circuiting to legal will only make things worse. It's like, you had the problem now let's try to close it up. Instead, why not use the H.R. department, or whatever department it is, to have a structure that addresses it directly?

Q: Why have some companies changed their human resources departments the way you described?

A: There have been two trends in this. One trend is, typically the H.R. department, one of their roles has been to manage the unions. That has disappeared. The second side of this, and I don't know if this is a cause or effect, but all around the country, business schools are changing their H.R. courses to more leadership, soft skill-type of courses. The traditional core of well-skilled H.R. executives are not there anymore.

We are in a slightly unique position, because we have been cognizant of this. If you look at the United States, the most unionized state is New York. And in New York, the most unionized region is Western New York. So we have always recognized that, and that's why all of (UB's) undergrads get a strong dose of human resources, where sexual harassment is covered.

But around the country, we are seeing this trend, where H.R. is basically being put aside. Leadership and team skills, that's what's getting the attention. So from companies' standpoint, one, they don't see the need, and second, they will not find the right type of people to fill it.

Q: If a company had a m0re robust human resources department, how would it be equipped to deal with sexual harassment?

A: A lot of these [companies'] infrastructures are reactive, meaning post incident. But what an H.R. department should do is communicate to employees or the students at the time they join. The joining moment is the time when you are setting the expectations. If you go in and you highlight the values at that stage and it's reinforced by the top management team saying, sexual harassment is a big issue and we want to treat all our employees fairly and this sets the tone there.

I'm basing not on this my opinion. There was a study done that said the two strongest factors predicting structural issues of sexual harassment are the organizational climate, and the proportion of women in the company. The greater the proportion of women in the company, the less sexual harassment. And what they also found was, in certain jobs where women are atypical — for example, in mining — that is where sexual harassment occurs more. So you know where the trouble spots will be, and you have to be proactive about it.

Q: Do you expect to see companies get more aggressive about dealing with this issue?

A: Companies that are more knowledge based like Google or Zappos, where openness of communication, expressing concerns is welcomed, I think those companies will be able to work through this process and put systems in place so that as soon as employees come in benchmarks are set, the standards are set. But I think in those traditional companies where you have a hierarchy, a stronger bureaucracy, which is typically more male-driven, then they will struggle a little bit more. Organizations that are not nimble I think will not be able to handle this that well.

In many ways, you can think of this as a threat to the company. But the other side of it is, if you do a good job, you'll have a dedicated workforce.

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