While many of the HR people I know in the field are very principled people but one thing where that changes is in regards to the law, specifically employment law. Litigation avoidance is one of the main assumptions most people in my field make about their employers. And not to get too political on you but over the last 30 years, it has become less and less difficult to bring litigation against employers. Whether you agree or disagree with that enhanced ability, there is no denying that it has changed the face of the business world.
For one, the concept of litigation avoidance was unheard of 30+ years ago. Companies rarely got sued and if they did, it was typically by consumers who had suffered through some sort of physical harm. If you paid minimum wage and you weren’t physically abusing your employees, you were probably alright.
In those days, being an employee was like being a child on a teeter-totter with a 300 pound adult on the other side. The equation was out of balance.
Since the formation of the EEOC, the balance has slowly shifted. Sexual harassment policies started taking effect and those who were used to the good old days had to adapt or be out of a job. Same with discrimination (which is still in the process of being full adapted). And for the most part, these regulations have been for the better. It has put the focus on work. Studies have been focused on the glass ceiling in workplaces where people are not allowed to advance due to non-work related reasons.
The balance has changed and we can argue all day long as to where that balance is but it is incredibly important to realize that most businesses have changed policies and that has had both a good and bad effect on the performance and morale of employees.
Whenever a sexual harassment charge comes to me, the “factory” shuts down. Regardless of my view of the reliability of such a charge, I must take certain actions to ensure my butt (I can be sued personally) and my company’s butt stays out of the line of fire. Whatever I was doing before is of no consequence. A sexual harassment investigation could take weeks of interviews, documentation and communication between all parties. If it goes to litigation, it could be months or years. Not all of that is going to be spent on this case but it is going to change my workload severely.
So whenever I make sexual harassment policies within the workplace, I am pretty much banning almost every type of non-work related conversations imaginable. That may seem over the top and my enforcement of it may be incredibly rigid but look at the alternatives I have. Either we spend the hours up front to ensure that people understand that we want them talking about spreadsheets and TPS reports, not big butts and Jesus or we spend days, weeks, months or years defending why we didn’t talk enough about it to begin with. The choice seems pretty clear to me.
Not all businesses are that strict but there is a significant risk attached with that. So if I seem a little keyed up while people tell jokes around the water cooler, maybe you have a little taste of why that is the case. 🙂