In 2016, the HR leaders of a Midwest-based global manufacturing company were concerned about the paucity of women in IT. They had taken some steps to recruit more women and people of color into
the department but were still falling short on their recruitment goals.
More troubling was the fact that they were not seeing any progress in
terms of retention and career advancement in tech. Only one woman
was in senior management, along with a few in high-level management
positions—but all of them were near retirement, and there were no other
women who were ready to step into those roles.
Susan, the HR director, noticed that workers had commented during
performance evaluations and exit interviews about how disappointed
they were that there were so few women in positions of power.
While no one had lodged a formal complaint, she decided to conduct a
climate survey focusing on the “I” part of D&I (diversity and inclusion).
The results showed that women felt unable to move up for a variety of
reasons, some systemic and some based on comments from men. For ex-
ample, the women reported hearing remarks that refected gender-based
stereotypes, such as “I didn’t think you’d be interested in moving for a
promotion since you have small children” and “You’re too emotional.”
They also received feedback about their appearance that made them
feel uncomfortable: “You look better in skirts,” or “Try wearing your
hair long; that’s much more attractive to men.”
The women who shared these comments didn’t classify them as sex-
ual harassment, but they believed that training on unconscious bias
Susan agreed and led the company to take afrmative steps, including:
ā ā Changing its practices on promotions by ensuring that women
were on interview committees to draft relevant and fair questions,
participate in interviews, and help make promotion decisions.
ā ā Providing training on how implicit bias afects decision-making.
For example, many reports were about men assuming that women
with small children would be unwilling to make a move even though
they had no similar concerns about men who had kids.
ā ā Implementing a robust mentorship program that included both
male and female leaders as mentors, and engaging in succession
planning to identify high-performing talent from both genders and
As a result of these actions, the company saw an increase in the number of entry-level women coming into the IT department and a dramatic
rise in the selection of women into higher-level positions.
Lesson Learned: Being proactive was key here. Many company
leaders don’t address gender discrimination unless there is a formal
complaint of wrongdoing. But Susan took the time to listen to what employees were saying and then gather the necessary data to fnd out more.
sues. Walker and his team sought
input from their employment attorney and made modifcations
to ensure that they covered all
factors relevant to the law. The
bottom line is that it’s not about
compliance versus core values:
It’s about being committed to
Walker’s comment about not
arguing over whether sexual behavior was welcome illustrates
another point: When conducting an internal investigation, HR
never has to decide whether the
behavior meets the legal test of
I once defended a harassment case in which I argued
that, even if true, the plaintif’s
allegations didn’t meet the evidentiary threshold of a legally
hostile environment. But the
judge rejected my argument on
the grounds that my client’s HR
department had concluded that
the behavior constituted “sexual
harassment” under its own policies. My client would have been
much better of simply addressing the behavior without trying
to characterize it legally.