Public shaming persuasive in confronting workplace abuse | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 24.07.2017
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Public shaming persuasive in confronting workplace abuse

In companies like Google and Uber, employees find the human resources department ineffective in addressing harassment. Publishing on public platforms proves an effective way to take matters into their owns hands.

During her first week at Google, a woman was invited by a male colleague to grab a drink with a group of coworkers. She was excited to feel included but she arrived only to discover that it wasn't actually a group outing - only the man who had invited her was present. Things got weirder yet as he told her "that [she] was expected to 'sleep with everyone' because that's the culture here."

Typically, in an American company, one would immediately report this to their human resources (HR) department, who would decide a course of action and address the situation. Yet many employees find this method ineffective and feel their concerns are ignored. With the easy traction and lightning-quick reach of social media and blogs, public shaming has become a strong motivator in eliciting a response. In the case of the woman mentioned above, she submitted her story to "Yes, At Google," a company-wide newsletter created for that very purpose.

"Yes, At Google" (YAG) began in October 2016 as an independent, grassroots email campaign aimed to increase transparency surrounding harassment and employee bias. Employees' post what happened to them on a message board and an anonymous group of employees curates the postings into a weekly email.

Großraumbüro (picture-alliance/dpa)

Currently, Google's YAT list has 15,000 subscribers which is over 20 percent of Google's workforce.

No work culture is without flaws. The larger the workforce the more likely there will be cultural and gender boundaries to navigate, and this is ideally where HR should come in. Meant to act as a neutral, incorruptible force, HR hires, fires, manages payroll, mediates employee conflicts and navigates the state and federal laws the company must abide by. Yet recently headlines have been made with scandals reflecting a different side of HR - one that sides with the abuser.

Is HR anti-employee in nature?

Take the case of Susan J. Fowler, a former Uber employee. While at Uber she was drawn down an HR rabbit hole when she tried to report being sexually harassed by her manager. HR dismissed her claims and even indicated there would be negative repercussions if she continued pursuing action. Fowler soon realized she was not alone, there were other female colleagues in the same situation. "Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager… long before I had even joined the company," said Fowler. "It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being 'his first offense,' and it certainly wasn't his last."

While HR did not show much interest, Fowler would soon find the world felt otherwise. She documented the situation and posted a first-person account on her personal blog, a post that spread like wildfire. Entering "Uber scandal" in a search engine brings up 1.4 million page results.

"The impact of Fowler's meticulously documented article keeps growing," says Forbes contributor George Anders. "Mounting evidence of problems has precipitated 20 firings at Uber, a board investigation and the awkwardly explained 'leave of absence' for CEO Travis Kalanick." It has even been suggested Fowler be nominated for a Pulitzer for her thorough documentation of the situation.

Uber did not respond to her allegations immediately. It was only through the snowballing of media outcry that Uber publicly addressed an issue it expressed no interest in when confronted internally. Fowler knew the risk involved with pushing it further with HR and waited until she was no longer working there to share her account.

In cutthroat work environments like Uber, the threat of internal retaliation is a major disincentive to those on the receiving end of mistreatment. The simple act of reporting harassment becomes a major vulnerability; and employees feel they must choose between seeking justice and keeping their job. Ruth Cornish, a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development noted when interviewing associates about whether HR was their friend or foe, most voted foe. One colleague even said "they exist to protect the company and are therefore anti-employee by nature."

HR versus no HR

Costs of turnover are high, lawsuits are expensive and bad press will damage a company's reputation, making HR a form of insurance against unfavorable outcomes. While experts recommend creating HR for any company with over 15 employees, many tech companies wait as long as possible to avoid the staffing expense. Some argue this provides too much time for the company culture - which in startups and venture capital is intrinsically white and male - to normalize dysfunctional attitudes towards outsiders, such as women and minorities.

Danny Crichton of TechCrunch said "venture capitalists don't win points either with founders or limited partners - their two constituencies - in hiring someone to manage HR within a firm. The forcing function is often a lawsuit, or less seriously, the near miss of a lawsuit that leads to a general discussion about reputation risk for the firm."

In the case of YAG, Google has not tried to quash the newsletter. In fact, executives and vice presidents have embraced the newsletter by listing it as a resource for new hires and HR has followed up on numerous incidents that were first released in the newsletter. For Google, embracing their employee's right to free speech and listening to the issues that arise within their company culture could be an effective safeguard against pulling an Uber.