Home Opinion/Commentary What happens when the VP of HR is the one sexually harassing workers?

What happens when the VP of HR is the one sexually harassing workers?

by HR Law Canada

When a complaint of sexual harassment or assault arises in the workplace, the HR department is often the first place to turn for help.

Employees, managers and executives alike look to HR when wrongdoing lands on their doorstep. But what happens when the accused works in HR? And what if that person is the CHRO?

It happens more than you might think.

Example one – NYC 

Back in 2019, the alleged wrongdoings of Michael Laidlaw made headlines in New York City. Laidlaw was the executive deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Social Services and the de facto head of HR.

He was allowed to “resign quietly,” according to the Bronx Justice News, after alleging groping Jacqueline Torres, his female assistant, at a work event, part of a pattern of sexual harassment. On March 11, 2016, during an off-site dinner event, Laidlaw groped her buttocks – a fact that was investigated by the employer and corroborated by others in attendance.

The victim filed suit against Laidlaw and the NYC Department of Social Services. In it, she said he “committed unwelcome sexual conduct toward her by groping her and frequently and severely harassing thereby creating an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment.”

One of the biggest issues facing victims of workplace sexual harassment or assault is the stigma attached to it – too often, they are not believed. Too often, they are punished and shunned by co-workers and management, especially if the accused is a senior leader.

The woman in this case said her work conditions changed unfavourably as a result of the reporting of the incident.

“Multiple senior managerial employees began to discriminate and retaliate against (her) after she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Department of Social Services,” the claim states. 

She also reported that, when she introduced herself to other employees following the complaint, that they would have an “obvious outward response” to hearing her name.

“Oh, you’re Jacqueline Torres,” they would say, causing her to relive the entire ordeal, the filing stated.

Example two – Toronto

The second example came to light while I was working as the publisher and editor-in-chief at Canadian HR Reporter.

A communications professional I knew told the story of the time the head of HR sexually harassed her in the workplace. Her story was profiled in a podcast – it’s worth a listen: https://soundcloud.com/user-975639745/episode-1-sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace

How to respond

There’s no dancing around the issue – when the head of HR is involved in wrongdoing like sexual harassment, it is complicated.

Typically, in cases like this, the employee will either report it to their supervisor or a member of the senior leadership team who they trust. If that is impossible, an employer often finds out about the wrongdoing from a lawyer.

How the employer responds will go a long way in mitigating the damage and solving the issue. One thing to always remember is that everyone is watching – other employees will want to see that the complaint is taken seriously and that appropriate action was taken. 

Courts and lawyers for the plaintiff will scrutinize every step you take, so proceed with caution. A few basic tips to remember:

· Treat every complaint seriously – forget the lessons of the boy who cried wolf

· Conduct thorough, detailed investigations

· Document everything

· Don’t put the victim and the accused in the same room to “hash things out”

· If evidence of wrongdoing exists, act decisively

· Ensure there are no repercussions for the victim, even if the complaint can’t be substantiated

· Hire a professional – such as a lawyer or investigator – if you’re not sure how to handle the case.

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