Guest Commentary: The HR joke is on us

Guest Commentary: The HR joke is on us


We tune out HR in our jobs. To understand why, think about Catbert, the evil director of human resources made famous in the Dilbert comic strip. As employees, we treat HR seriously only at milestones such applying for a job, changing our benefits and separating (quitting, retiring or being fired). But that's because our employers devalue HR while putting finance, operations, logistics, data analytics and other corporate functions ahead of HR.

It's no accident that Fox News, CBS and other major corporations are paying a steep price for the predatory behavior of unmanaged stars such as Bill O'Reilly and Charlie Rose. HR was not even available for females who were harassed by O'Reilly and Rose. That's how America's workplaces run — or run amok.

To better understand why, let's think about Vicky Crawford. She worked for 30 years in Nashville's large school district office. Gene Hughes, her boss— ironically, the head of HR — was accused of sexual harassment. Ms. Crawford never made a formal complaint. But in Ms. Crawford's presence, Hughes occasionally made crude jokes about his erection, and once pulled her head down to his crotch.

Someone else blew the whistle on the boss. When the district investigated, three other women, including Ms. Crawford, came forward with stories that corroborated the first charge against the boss.

Hughes kept his job. The three women? All were fired.

Ms. Crawford's lawsuit for unlawful retaliation under Title VII was thrown out at trial. That's because a conservative court read the law's anti-retaliation clause by applying a narrow dictionary definition. The judge ignored the legislative intent behind Title VII. Congress plainly said the anti-retaliation clause was to protect whistleblowers who participate in discrimination proceedings, and also those who oppose discriminatory behavior.

The Supreme Court reversed this decision. In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville (2009), a unanimous court ruled that opposition includes proactive speaking out and less confrontational opposition — here, answering questions in a sexual harassment complaint.

A common attack against women who come forward with allegations is that they waited too long and therefore their motives are questionable. But research on whistleblowers shows over and over that organizations punish them — and less frequently, punish the real wrongdoers. That's a good start in explaining why women don't report or report reluctantly and belatedly.

How can the situation be improved? Recent events mark a good beginning. We're having a national discussion about sexual harassment. But we had a similar conversation when Anita Hill reported Clarence Thomas' crude sexual remarks and misconduct in her workplace. At the time, many of us thought that was a watershed. In reality, it was a fleeting moment of recognizing the legal and moral hazards in ignoring this problem.

Just as the Clarence Thomas embarrassment passed, Catbert became popular. Part of a wonky, left-leaning satire on the dehumanizing aspects of our work, Catbert helped us devalue our HR colleagues and their mission.

Conservatives did their part by attacking "PC" as a civility code at work — as if that's a bad thing. Boys will be boys, according to this school of thought — meaning that work rules go too far in legislating against crude jokes, come-ons to female colleagues and tales of male prowess.

As for Vicky Crawford, her boss was the real-life, evil carnation of Catbert. His braggadocio about the size of his erection was funny to him. But for Ms. Crawford, talk of the boss's erection amounted to a long and powerful yardstick of his power over her and her livelihood.

With these jokes, he silenced her for years. The HR joke was cruelly turned against Ms. Crawford — that is, until the Supreme Court paved the way for the school district to pay Ms. Crawford dearly for protecting a powerful man.

Michael H. LeRoy is a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.