CEO’s Letter: Presumption Versus Investigation and the Role of HR

By Elliot H. Clark

Here I go again writing about the impact of political culture on the life of HR. And I hope the hate mail I get is not too hateful in these overwrought times. But there is an important cultural moment at hand and depending on how social views become ingrained, it may impact the practice of HR.

By the time you read this, the U.S. mid-term elections will be over and the impact of the so-called “Kavanaugh effect” will be clear. The question of whether it galvanized the political right or energized the political left will be answered. But the divisions will remain, and the question of how a process could become so flawed may never be understood.

I want to be clear. I am not stating that I believe Justice Kavanaugh or that I believe Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford. In fact, to the extent that I will share my opinion, I am unsure. I was not privy to the investigation or its outcome. But I know that depending on where we were in the process, I was harangued -yes, I will use that word -by people I know who are on the left and on the right. What was the sin I had committed that got me so into the line of fire of both sides? I voiced an opinion that there should be a supplemental investigation after the allegations became public. Even though I explained, “That’s what an HR professional would do,” I was met with hostility and raised voices by people advocating for both sides.

Some right-wing folks were upset early on because of the multiple background investigations that had already been done. I argued that new allegations required a new investigation in the case that the accuser was credible, which she was. I had this argument with a family member who is as far to the right as Rush Limbaugh (you can’t pick your family or even get them to be moderate, as it turns out). He saw no reason and was incensed when I explained how these things are managed in the real world by members of the HR community. Then at the same event, a family friend who overheard this discussion and is a self-described democratic socialist told me I was a “disgusting, misogynistic rape apologist” for not automatically believing an accuser. It was at that moment I decided to write this column. Because there is a larger issue at play here in society than the spectacle of the Senate Judiciary process.

I have written a few pieces on the Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement saying it was a social failure that people like Weinstein were allowed to flourish. Bear in mind, I am not conflating Dr. Ford’s testimony of a violent attempted rape with sexual harassment, but workplace assaults occur as well as harassment. Part of the air cover given to serial harassers is the presumption of “rectitude.” For example, the accuser being a “gold digger” is a popular term especially for disparaging women, or a “disgruntled” employee or an “opportunist.” Inside this gray zone of doubt live thousands of Harveys enjoying the presumption of rectitude, and this very presumption spawned an explosion of bad behaviors. And even worse, in some cases, bad HR leaders would conduct flawed investigations or just clean up the mess.

A presumption of rectitude by accusers can also spawn an explosion of bad behavior. It would potentially allow less than credible claims to be intermingled with truly serious ones and drown out those deserving of respect and yes, justice. A good investigation must always be undertaken and the facts -not presumptions -should be followed. And I’m sure the readers of HRO Today are thinking, “Yes, that’s what we do. We do the investigation. We stand by the importance of doing a good investigation and getting whatever facts may exist.”

For example, a nightmare scenario for HR: After being told there will be an investigation, an accuser of an executive at a large organization tweets that the leadership doesn’t believe victims and should be boycotted. This causes a social media explosion of pressure when the company and HR are just doing their job.

We need to make our employees understand that we are there to support them, and we need to have the courage to stand up for the investigation over the presumption of truth, innocence, or guilt on EITHER side.

I worry for the future reputation of HR and that operational executives will succumb to external forces and try to limit HR’s ability to conduct investigations. Because what we have and should always stand for in the HR profession is the facts and truth regardless of pressure. An investigation should be a sacrosanct process, and I hope it always will be.

Tags: Magazine Article, November 2018

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