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Will HR protect your interests after a sexual harassment claim?

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Human resources departments have an inherent conflict of interest. They may encourage people to report sexual harassment, but their primary job is to represent the interests of the company. Depending on the situation and internal policies, that may mean that HR is not entirely on your side.

"They will help you as long as your interests don't run counter to the interest of the company, because you're not paying their salary; the company is," says former HR executive Cynthia Shapiro, who recently wrote a book about the secrets of human resources. "There are many HR departments that operate under an edict to shut you down in order to protect the company," she adds. "It's not evil; it's self-preservation."

If you're experiencing sexual harassment, you need someone who is entirely on your side. It's a good idea to get a lawyer before taking any action with your company.

Only a quarter of those who experience sexual harassment end up reporting it, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There are many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is fear of retaliation.

Closely related to fear of retaliation is the very real fear of being ignored. Both management and HR may think the complaint represents the real danger to the company's interests, rather than the harassment itself. In other situations, the company may be inclined to overlook bad behavior by a star performer -- as long as the value outweighs the ongoing risk.

These days, the "Weinstein effect" may change the calculus. Companies are starting to see that a single accusation may represent merely the tip of the iceberg. In the past, even a good-faith complaint may have been viewed as a potential threat to be defended against. Now, that single report may be seen as indicating a serious internal problem that needs to be nipped in the bud.

The problem is that we can't predict how any particular company may react to a sexual harassment complaint. We do know that most companies will not respond favorably to a complaint without substantial, credible evidence.

If you're experiencing sexual harassment, you need to build up a record that will be believed. You need to do this before you present a complaint to HR. An attorney can help you ensure that the company sees your complaint credible and concludes that the most effective way to deal with it is to punish the harasser, not you.

Before you take a single step toward reporting harassment, talk to a lawyer about your concerns. Together you can increase the odds that your complaint will be taken seriously.

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