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Human resources pros insist: When it comes to sexual harassment, yes, HR is your friend

Many of the harassment cases that come before human resource professionals aren't clear-cut. What about the socially awkward man who can't read the cues and asks a colleague out on a date, or, worse yet, makes a pass? Grossed out, she heads right to HR. Now what? What about the serial hugger - the Teddy bear that (almost) everybody loves?

Sheriff Jewell Williams arrives on the scene of an incident at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia in August 2016.
Sheriff Jewell Williams arrives on the scene of an incident at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia in August 2016.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

If only it were always as easy as a man masturbating in front of his coworkers. Fire him, simple. That's a no-brainer move for anyone in human resources.

But what about the situation HR manager Dawn Ceaser had to deal with involving an enthusiastic hugger at her workplace, a local hospital system? More on that later.

Ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke more than a month ago, with daily fresh revelations such as recent news about Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams, there's been another question: Where is the human resources department? Who is watching out for these women?

"HR is not your friend," longtime Philadelphia employment lawyer Alice Ballard said in an interview published in the Inquirer, Daily News and shortly after the movie mogul's treatment of female colleagues and acquaintances came to light.

"Their job is to do damage control for the company," she said. "They decide whether to take on an investigation and how that investigation is run. If you complain, you'll do it at great personal cost."

Really? A mostly female group of about two dozen human resource managers, gathering for a monthly meeting of the Delaware County Human Resource Association, wasn't buying it, at least not for their organizations — even though, by a show of hands, nearly half had experienced sexual harassment on the job, and most had to deal with the issue professionally.

On the agenda Tuesday was an aptly timed presentation on harassment, delivered by Jonathan Segal, a longtime Philadelphia employment lawyer and a partner at Duane Morris LLP.

"I work for a nonprofit and most of the leaders are female," said the group's president-elect, Rachel Milano-Davis, a human resource manager at a health-staffing nonprofit. She described the chief executive of her organization as a "very strong female" who would never tolerate retaliation.

"Sometimes, people ask what the role of human resources is," Segal said. "They have an obligation to protect the company, and they have an obligation to protect the employee.

"In human resources, you are in the middle," he said. "If your leadership supports you, then I think you can protect the employees and the company."

Segal told the group that he worried publicity over egregious examples of sexual harassment would lead to a false sense of security among bad actors who were creating problems for women based on suggestive remarks or by linking sex with promotions, but who weren't groping someone at every turn.

They will think they aren't that bad, Segal said. But "senior leaders have to be vocal that they don't accept that kind of conduct."

Usually, though, it's not that clear-cut. Sometimes, harassment happens when a dating relationship at work goes sour or when someone, genuinely attracted to a coworker, believes the feeling is mutual and asks for a date, causing offense.

Offering an example she encountered, Milano-Davis said, "I think it was his attempt to be suave" that offended his colleague. "He was apologetic."

In the end, Segal said, men may be so worried about being inappropriate that they may decide it's too risky to deal with women at all, excluding them from, for example, post trade-show rehash confabs at the hotel bar. A female employee then loses out on the networking, relationship-building, and shared tips that could lead to promotion. That's another form of discrimination. Try rehashing over coffee, he advised.

The situation that Ceaser faced?

One employee is a linebacker-sized "Teddy-bear" type who is a source of joy at work. He's also a hugger, which doesn't bother most of the people, but did offend one woman who complained. Ceaser counseled the hugger to stop hugging, but then she noticed, as she walked the halls, that people would ask him for a hug.

It's a dilemma. "How do we remove the inappropriate from the workplace without removing the collegiality?" Segal asked.

It was probably best for the hugger to stop hugging, Segal said, but human resources should help him rehearse what to say in a hugging scenario.

Ceaser nodded. "It's touch, but don't touch," she said. "It's a mixed message. I feel bad for him, because he doesn't know what to do."

What should employers do to "crush harassment?" Here's what employment attorney Jonathan Segal told the Delaware County Human Resource Association:

  1. Have a policy, but don't just use words like "inappropriate and unacceptable." Give examples. Disseminate the policy -- often -- and talk about it.

  2. Have a complaint procedure, one with multiple entry points, in case the immediate supervisor or the human resource manager is the harasser. A committee is better, or a hotline.

  3. Train managers on how to respond "in the moment," when told of harassment. Role-play to make sure the reaction is welcoming yet neutral, understanding that it might have taken tremendous courage for the person to speak up.

  4. Even though every complaint may not be valid, "you can't retaliate against people that make complaints."

  5. "Zero tolerance" is not a good policy. The remedy has to be "immediate and proportionate."