Deaf ears and a blind eye: when leadership won't listen to HR

Why working in corporate world kept HR head awake at night

Deaf ears and a blind eye: when leadership won't listen to HR

When the news broke that Hollywood star Jeff Garlin had been investigated by HR for the past three years for his behavior on the set of ABC’s hit comedy The Goldbergs, Natasha Bowman had a case of déjà vu.

The HR professional hadn’t worked with the comedian before (who has since exited the show), but his situation was all too familiar. Garlin argued that any crass language or antics he performed while filming were merely for humorous purposes, insisting there was no malice behind them. However, former co-workers told Vanity Fair that they felt uncomfortable and demeaned by his actions.

“We hear that it’s ‘just a joke’ all the time,” Bowman, founder of New York City-based talent management consultancy Performance ReNEW, told HRD.

“That may have been the case the first time, and that was an opportunity for the organization to give some education and awareness that those types of jokes are inappropriate in the workplace. Even if people are laughing, they’re still offended, but because of who you are, they won’t show you they’re offended. When it happens over a period of time, though, the excuse of ‘it’s just a joke’ is no longer acceptable. You’re ignoring the advice of your organization, so you shouldn’t have the opportunity and privilege to remain in your position.”

An unfortunate aspect of the job, Bowman has dealt with similar situations throughout her career, having worked for Walmart, Northwell Health and former promotional products company Standard Register.

“I’ve been on the other side of that HR desk, where I’ve done the investigation and I have overwhelming evidence corroborating the victim’s story,” Bowman says. “I’ve been told that instead of firing the person committing this conduct, I have to present the victim with a settlement agreement with a non-disclosure statement. Now the victim feels like they’ve done something wrong by coming to HR in the first place.”

“Those have been very hard conversations to have,” Bowman adds. “It keeps you up at night when you do that over and over again.”

Read more: Workplace harassment still happens remotely, says 38% of employees

Even though Bowman, like many HR professionals, didn’t agree with leadership’s decision, she had no choice but to carry it out. After all, as HR, she was an agent of the organization. Once the powers that be made up their mind, it was her role to stand by it.

“You can’t go in there and say, ‘I’m sorry I have to tell you this, I corroborated everything you said, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do anything about it,’” Bowman says. “You have to go in there, put on a straight face and say, ‘I hear you. I did the investigation. Because of confidentiality, I’m not allowed to tell you the outcome of the investigation. Essentially, here’s your severance agreement. Obviously, you’re not happy here with your employment, so we’re going to give you a way out.’”

For decades, HR leaders have tried to prevent those conversations. Although Bowman, and many others before her, tried to talk their bosses out of siding with offending parties, oftentimes their advice fell on deaf ears.

That’s changed for the most part in recent years due to social media and the #MeToo movement. CEOs, executives and other decision-makers now face pressure from the public when misconduct allegations arise. Instead of turning a blind eye and sweeping issues under the rug, senior leadership has been forced to address controversies or risk losing sponsors and customers. It has become a business imperative to oust bad characters from organizations.

Since leaving corporate America, Bowman has made it her mission to partner with organizations to strategize exits for those guilty of misconduct in the workplace.

“Sometimes we’re able to leave them with some sort of dignity, but to be honest, sometimes we’re not able to,” Bowman says. “Business leaders need to listen to the recommendations of HR and start doing right by employees to create a positive, non-toxic culture. If a company sends the message that this conduct won’t be tolerated, that organization shouldn’t be trying to keep your reputation intact. You make a decision; you suffer the consequences.”

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