CEOs & Boards Need Training Too

“Do CEOs get trained on harassment?”  That was the question from a lovely individual who recently went through the wringer of having to let a C-suite-level leader go in her organization.  My answer was “they should.”

Based on media reports over the past year, it doesn’t appear that CEOs, anyone in the C-suite actually get harassment training.  They may pay for training for their own staff and even for managers, but requiring the attendance of CEOs and even boards of directors appears to be few and far between.  In just the past year, CEOs at the following companies have either stepped down in the midst of scandal or were fired:

These are prominent companies.  Companies with significant public profiles.  Leaders who should have known better.  Leaders who did not receive training, who did receive training and didn’t comprehend the consequences, or who simply didn’t care.  It’s quite possible that’s where we are – some leaders may believe the rules do not apply to them.

The law has a different view.  The law says that CEOs ARE your organization.  When they engage in harassment, the organization is automatically liable.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Automatically.  Look at Section VI in the link.)  Because CEOs – no matter the size of your organization – are your public face, they are the “alter ego” of the organization.  What they do binds the organization in business and in harassment.  For this reason, CEOs need to understand the gravity that comes with their bad decisions and actions.  They must understand that sending an inappropriate text, making a sexual request, or touching an employee improperly has significant consequences.  That it can even force the closure or bankruptcy of the organization.  It could be the end of the road.

So, I’m issuing you a challenge HR friends.  As you get ready for 2019 and you organize your training schedule for the year, include your leaders in harassment training.  Involve your board of directors.  Make sure that they attend.  Go over what happens if they engage in harassment.  Explain the investigative process –their technology will be reviewed, including texts and emails.  If you do this, you’ll help protect your organization and hopefully prevent harassment.

Quick story – I once did two trainings for a company.  On the first day, I trained all the managers and leadership, including the CEO.  The second day, I trained employees.  To show how important the training was to the company, the CEO introduced me.  He started with the expected “we take this very seriously” and then said, “I think you’ll like Kate, she’s loose.”  Now, he meant that I was not a stuffy attorney, but nevertheless, that was lesson number one of the training.  He turned all sorts of red, apologized immediately, and we all had a laugh.  I promise you, no one in that organization who was there will forget that and everyone learned something.

If you need help planning your training, take a look here.

 

Photo by Tyler B on Unsplash

Vote! Vote! Vote!

We’re one week away from the midterm elections.  All of the 435 House of Representatives members are on the ballot.  Thirty-six governorships are on the ballot.  Thirty-five Senate races are on the ballot.  A seemingly countless number of other statewide and local elections are on the ballot.  With this election, a lot is on the ballot.

Here are just a few of the issues on our ballots:

These issues affect our people.  Even if these issues don’t seem to directly affect Jimmy in Accounting or Juan in Shipping, our people are affected by them.  As HR people, we should encourage our people to vote.   We should expect that they might need time off to vote and that our state law may require it.  This year, a record 44% of employers will give paid time off to vote.  Isn’t that cool?

You also need to vote.  You may be able to vote early this week in your state.  Or take the time to vote next week.  Just vote, please.  Pretty please?  (Not that the appearance of the please should make any difference, but if it gets you to vote…)

 

 

Image by me just after early voting.

If Amazon’s Tool Could Discriminate, Could Yours?

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon created a recruiting engine using artificial intelligence.  This isn’t news.  Amazon is a leader in automation, so it makes sense that the retail giant would try automation in their own recruiting processes to try to quickly find the “best” candidates.  Yet, Amazon’s tool had a big problem – it didn’t like women.

As the article describes, “Everyone wanted this holy grail,” one of the people said. “They literally wanted it to be an engine where I’m going to give you 100 resumes, it will spit out the top five, and we’ll hire those.”  Who doesn’t want this?  To make hiring faster and easier?  Currently, there are hundreds of AI tools available to human resources – many of them in the recruiting space – that promise to do these things for you.  But if Amazon found problems, what about those tools?

Amazon’s tool used a 10-year look back of existing employees (largely male-dominated).  The tool then could rank applicants based on what it learned makes a good Amazonian.  Based on its own analysis, the tool learned that male candidates were preferred over female candidates in a mixture of words that appear on applications, like “women’s,” experience, job requirements, and potentially proxies for gender.  While Amazon tried to solve for this problem – making “women’s” a neutral word so the tool did not reduce the applicant’s rank – the results of the tool still had a negative impact on women.  So, in 2015, Amazon abandoned the tool.  Good for Amazon.  This is the right thing to do.  But again, there are hundreds of other AI tools out there.

At this year’s HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas, my friend Heather Bussing and I presented on this very topic.  We spoke about how AI can both amplify and reduce bias. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • We know that AI is biased because people are biased.
  • We know the sources of the bias include the data we use to teach the AI, the programming itself, the design of the tool, and people who create the tool.
  • Employers have to be vigilant with their tools.  We have to test for bias and retest and retest (and retest) for bias in our tools.
  • Employers – not the AI – are ultimately responsible for the results of the tool, because even if we follow the output of the tool, the employer is making the ultimate employment decision.

It is very possible, even probable, that the tools out there on the market have bias in them.  Employers can’t simply rely on a vendor’s salesperson’s enthusiastic declarations that the tool eliminates bias.  Instead, employers should assume bias plays a factor and look at their tool with a critical eye and try to solve for the problem ourselves.

I applaud Amazon for doing the right thing here, including testing its tool, reviewing the results, and abandoning the tool when it became clear that its bias played a part the results.  This isn’t easy for every employer.  And, not every employer is going to have the resources to do this.  This is why employers have to be vigilant and hold their vendors accountable for helping us make sure bias isn’t affecting our decisions even when using an AI tool.  Because ultimately, the employer could be liable for the discrimination that the tools aid.

 

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Is HR Two-Faced? You Betcha.

HR has two faces.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s by design.  To employees, we are the face of management.  To management, we are the face of employees.  This is what makes our job so darn hard.

Employees need us to be their advocate to management.  We beg, borrow, and steal for increased benefits, argue that people should be disciplined, we ask for more training and opportunity for employees, we pass tissues when someone is upset, we help get them leave when a grandma is sick or a baby is on the way, etc.

Management expects us to keep them safe.  We create policies that govern employee behavior, we find people so the widgets get made, we draft severance agreements when a manager screws up, we coach managers how to have tough conversations, we try to reduce liability by implementing safety programs, etc.

Some of us really like one side over the other, but both are expected and important.  Problems arise when we show the wrong face.  When we brag to employees just how hard we’ve been working on their behalf, management hears of it and loses trust in us.  When we gossip with employees about management strategy, employees learn they can’t trust us either.  When we stop advocating for employees with management, the employees know we’ve stopped.  Then, they know they can’t come to us with problems – we’ll just can’t be bothered by them.

These two faces are really hard to maintain.  We can’t have deep friendships with the people we work with for fear of the time when we have a tough conversation with our friend that ends in her termination. But we want to know enough about people so they feel comfortable coming to us with concerns even if we don’t partake in the party after the company party.  This professional distance is important for us to do our jobs, so we’re trusted enough to do our jobs.

Sometimes, we can’t show either face until we have facts.  When we hear about harassment is one of those times.  We are empathetic and appreciative to the person who brought us the complaint, but we can’t make admissions like “I’m so sorry” or “We’ll make this right.”  This could show the employee that we’re on her side, undermining our investigation.  OR – perhaps more destructively – we show the employee our management face that’s cold and “just the fact’s ma’am” ensuring that no employee ever tells us about harassment again because we appeared to immediately take the side of the harasser.  Once we have completed the investigation, we advocate to management about what should be done, even if it’s nothing.  When we advocate for the ultimate penalty (termination), we put our credibility and relationship with management on the line.  Then, if we lose, we have to make tough decisions for ourselves.

We don’t always win.  We advocate and lose on both sides, employees and management.  But even when we lose, our job is to build relationships strong enough to get past the loss so we can be ready for the next round. OR, if this loss affects our integrity, we have even tougher decisions to make.  We must think about the possibility of making that decision someday.  It takes guts.

We may have two faces, two jobs that sometimes conflict, but that’s the great thing of HR.  We get to do both.

 

Photo by Soroush Karimi on Unsplash

Tough Conversations

Question:  What do I do if during a conversation about poor performance the employee starts injecting that she’s being attacked or has been harassed?

A tough conversation is exactly that – tough.  For a lot of managers, tough conversations include performance discussions.  A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article explained that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Two-thirds!  This means a couple of things:  (1) managers don’t know how to have tough conversations; and (2) managers are not prepared to have tough conversations.  HR can help with this!

It is a rare organization that does a great job training managers on how to manage.  Most don’t have the time or resources to devote to some of the “softer” skills about how to communicate with employees.  So, we send managers out into our organizations to fend for themselves, explain they should treat employees how they want to be treated, buy them a book on leadership, and hope for the best.  While I wish managers knew more, here’s what I’d like them to know about tough conversations:

Plan.  Prepare a script.  I recommend you draft an email with some bullet points or full script of what you need to convey to the employee.  If you don’t plan, it’s possible that the conversation will wander and you may miss the clear messaging you need to convey.

Consult.  Consult with HR, another manager, and/or your manager.  Ask them for feedback that you can use to improve your messaging or alter your wording to make the message even more clear or less emotional or harsh.

Take a beat.  Yes, performance should be addressed as soon as possible, but a discussion about performance should not happen in the heat of the moment or in anger.  Take a beat to breathe, plan, and consult.  It’s okay and even preferred where the manager’s own emotion could hinder the discussion.  Just don’t let the beat last longer than one business day.

Schedule.  This is a short, in-person meeting – usually less than 15 minutes.  There should not be a long list of things you need to cover.  Bogging it down with other subjects reduces the importance of the poor performance part of the discussion, so performance should be the only topic of the conversation from the manager’s perspective.  Plus, if you add other topics, the employee may not remember them.

Anticipate.  Usually, a manager knows if an employee will cry, become defensive, and/or angry.  Ponder in your planning what could happen.  Have tissues ready, let HR know you’re having the conversation, or plan to have someone with you if you have concerns about the employee’s reaction.  Select this person carefully – s/he should not be a co-worker of the employee.

Prepare for surprise.  Sometimes, a manager won’t be able to anticipate how the employee react.  In the question above, if the employee starts lodging complaints, the manager needs to know how to refocus the discussion.  Managers will need to hear a complaint, but then remind the employee that she’s there to talk about performance.  Managers should report the complaint immediately after the meeting so HR or management can take action.

Document.  Use your bullet points or script to recap with additions of how the meeting actually went.  The employee does not have to sign off on the documentation but should know of the document’s existence.

I often joke that managers have the word “manage” in their job title, so they’ve got to actually manage.  Most managers are great at saying “you’re doing great,” but it is those conversations where they have to confront an employee about poor performance or misconduct that trips them up.  For HR, this means we coach managers through these tough conversations.  Use these tips and reach out when you need help.

 

 

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