Here's how HR is supposed to handle sexual harassment

Gretchen Carlson: Every woman has experienced sexual harassment
Gretchen Carlson: Every woman has experienced sexual harassment

With allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News in the headlines, human resources is getting a lot of flak.

"HR is not your friend. HR will not help you."

That was Nancy Erika Smith speaking last week at the Women in the World conference. She's a lawyer who represented former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson in her harassment suit against network founder Roger Ailes.

"The first call you make is to an attorney. ... You need to find out what the laws are," she said.

Anita Hill added this in a Washington Post op-ed: "There are still companies that pay lip service to human-resources departments, while quietly allowing women to be vilified when they come forward."

That's not how the system is supposed to work, experts say. Human resources should drive any investigation about harassment complaints in the workplace -- and enforce the consequences when necessary.

"A good HR office is the linchpin for an employer's effective system for learning about harassment and then responding quickly and effectively," said Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency is tasked with enforcing federal workplace discrimination laws.

Related: 'Every damn woman still has a story' about harassment

Workplace harassment on the basis on race, gender, religion, national origin, age or disability violates federal law (specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and often state law. If a company knows harassment is occurring, it must take appropriate steps to remedy the issue -- or it can be held liable.

Experts say a company should have a written anti-harassment policy. If it's breached, an employee can file a complaint.

The complaint then must be taken seriously. HR typically conducts interviews and comes to a conclusion. And, last but not least, there are proportionate repercussions. And the employee is not subject to retaliation.

But that's not always how things go down.

Feldblum, who has studied workplace harassment extensively, identified two common problems in how companies handle complaints: Top executives aren't serious about enforcing harassment policies and are reluctant to punish star employees.

"If there's a breakdown, it tends to be because the people at the very top are not really committed to stopping and remedying harassment," she said.

This becomes obvious if the whole office knows high performers can get off scot-free.

"The biggest single problem and complaint we hear from employees and workplaces, is, 'Oh yeah, I know that applies to me, but that doesn't apply to John, because he's a top performer,'" said Weldon Latham, a lawyer with the law firm Jackson Lewis who represents employers in harassment cases and advises them on policies.

That's a problem. If somebody makes an anonymous complaint against that person and he or she isn't punished, a company's credibility is "shot," Latham said.

Indeed, at least at large companies, the problem isn't generally the lack of a harassment policy, but rather the lack of follow through. At some companies, the fact that HR generally reports up the corporate chain can be problematic.

Cynthia Shapiro, a former human resources executive and author of the book "Corporate Confidential," says there's a fundamental conflict when HR is tasked with policing a company while remaining accountable to its senior executives.

"Human resources is not an external independent entity, and in many cases they are called upon to investigate the people who pay their salary," she said.

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