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How Human Resources Handles Sexual Misconduct


I'm joined now by Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant who has written extensively about harassment in the workplace. Thanks so much for joining us.

LAURIE RUETTIMANN: You're welcome. I'm happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So my colleague Scott Simon spoke with you a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the first accusations against Weinstein. You said at that point that you weren't optimistic that this would lead to a sea change, but we've seen so many other reports happening now. Do you feel any differently?

RUETTIMANN: Well, I'm conflicted. I think there's a cultural moment happening right now around storytelling. Women are telling stories on social media, in communities. And I think as a whole, in society, we're getting better at listening to one another. Women are being heard. So in some ways, I'd like to be hopeful. But, you know, Lulu, I'm also worried that we'll be burnt out by all of these stories. As the stories turn darker, I worry that inertia will kick in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you know, NPR ousted the head of its newsroom, Mike Oreskes, over allegations of sexual misconduct this week. But I'd like to focus on what you can do to prevent things from happening in an organization. You know, there were stories about his conduct that were swirling among women in the newsroom since a few weeks after he started. It took more than two years, though, in outside reporting before he was forced to resign. Is there a way that organizations can be proactive in looking into rumors and gossip and this storytelling that we're doing now? They are often signaling that something is very wrong.

RUETTIMANN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I'm very - I'm very, very sorry that that's happened. There are things organizations can do to circumvent human resources. So, for example, when supervisors and managers hear office gossip, they don't have to go to HR. They can act on it. They can ask questions. It shouldn't take outside reporting or inside reporting or two years of any kind to discover what's happening within your organization. So I think if you hear gossip, whether you're in human resources or just a supervisor, it's time to follow up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what does that look like when you say follow up?

RUETTIMANN: Well, what do we do when we hear things that are weird and are personal in private lives? We start to ask questions, and that's really the nature of what's happening with storytelling. So people are telling stories. And then it's up to us to listen and then ask earnest, simple questions to try to get at what's being communicated - not necessarily what's the truth at that moment but just a first-level, basic understanding of active listening, just drilling down to really truly understand what the person is trying to say.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people make a distinction between what is legally wrong and what is wrong for the culture of an organization. Do you see that distinction? Should there be that distinction?

RUETTIMANN: Well, you know, I do see the distinction. And I see people trying to parse out almost a spectrum of behaviors. So at one end is harassment and abuse that's physical in nature, and at the other end are just, you know, comments that are based on where you sit in the org chart and depending on who you are and where you are and the power dynamic. People try to explain certain behaviors away. You know, I think right now what we're seeing is individuals who are in positions of power putting their needs - their personal needs - in front of the needs of those people who work with them in the organization.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What should companies do, though? I mean, if you know that harassment's going on - you're a manager - you've heard rumors, I mean, what does it look like?

RUETTIMANN: So there's currently some thought that HR should be an outsourced function where individuals pay into it as well as companies. And so you have this outside almost like tribunal that is impartial and fair and can hear employee complaints - everything from sexual harassment to bias to discrimination to pay inequity - and really makes some binding decisions around who's right and who's wrong. Unfortunately, that sounds like a union or at least what used to sound like a union in some ways, and I don't think companies will go for that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the beginning of this conversation, you said that you're worried that people are going to get tired. Do you think, though, that the corporate culture will change?

RUETTIMANN: Well, I have said before that I'm both cynical but open to being optimistic about the future. You know, I'm Gen X. I'm 42 years old. I've seen quite a bit of sexual harassment come and go in my lifetime. We've had these moments in society where we're focused on women and women's issues. And we get excited for a period of time, and then we seem to forget about it. So I would like to be hopeful. I would like to be optimistic, but I'm not naive. Not at all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laurie Ruettimann is a human resources consultant. Thanks so much.

RUETTIMANN: You're welcome, Lulu.


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