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As ‘Chief of Fun,’ HR May Struggle to Fight Harassment

    Managers should share in the role of boosting morale

    By Allen Smith, J.D.

    HR professionals often are tasked with managing company morale-boosting activities that expand the typical definition of HR. Some even go overboard and decide to become the workplace "chief of fun," particularly at smaller companies where an owner may expect HR to arrange every party and picnic. But for HR pros who accept this role, they risk losing their credibility with the employees they're hoping to help lead, especially those who have issues at work with harassing behaviors.

    "It's hard to walk the line between being the chief of fun and the chief enforcer of the harassment, workplace violence and other policies," said Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y. It's more important that the staff feel comfortable confiding in HR about misconduct and inappropriate behavior than whether there's enough birthday cake, she said.

    In fact, it's critical for HR to separate the tasks of morale-boosting and investigations, experts say. Employees who've been bullied or mistreated may not raise concerns with someone they think is a lightweight. Rather than HR shouldering the burden of planning all events to boost morale, for instance, employee committees and managers could be assigned this task with HR's oversight. Then HR looks less like the party planner and more like someone who could tackle a harassment investigation.

    Philippe Weiss is managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a legal compliance and consulting service in Chicago. He said he trained one company, after a lawsuit was filed, where the HR leader called herself the "company merriment and morale manager." She planned weekly happy hours, trivia games and fantasy football pools.

    "When the company eventually was sued for failure to address major EEO [equal employment opportunity] issues, a number of the employees specifically testified at depositions that they were uncomfortable bringing any serious discrimination concerns to someone who seemed more focused on workplace frivolity than workplace fairness," he said.

    In other companies, employees have questioned the objectivity of HR investigators because they were bowling buddies or karaoke club colleagues with the accused or complainant, Weiss said.

    One company settled after a slightly inebriated—and relatively novice—HR investigator was overheard in a local bar telling an employee accused of misconduct, "I feel like we are sort of soulmates."

    "Looking at today's fraught climate, a high degree of HR professionalism and proper comportment is key," Weiss said. "It's rather hard to admonish or coach others regarding maintaining some personal space or respecting impacts on others if you yourself are an unreformed workplace jokester or hugger."


    Problems with HR Being Pigeonholed


    Being labeled chief of fun may not only interfere with HR's role enforcing anti-harassment policies, it could make others skeptical of HR's ability to do the serious work of applying metrics, benchmarks and analytics, observed Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP, independent consultant with FiveL Co. in Westminster, Md.

    At many new startups, particularly those run by Millennials, HR is viewed as focusing on attracting and retaining talent, according to David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc., an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn. Many times, that is done by showing prospective hires and new employees that the company culture is relaxed and co-workers spend a lot of time socializing.

    If HR encourages fun times at work, harassment victims might fear that HR will take sides with the joking harasser, he noted. "Look at the culture being developed, fostered and perpetuated" by some firms' HR professionals, he said. " 'Arrive by 10 please. At 4 the beer taps are turned on.' The fun room with foosball tables, ping pong and pinball is more akin to the local bar than a workplace." And then happy hours after the office closes further blur the lines between work and social activities. How do employees make that distinction, he asked, when HR is the one facilitating the party?

    Enlisting the Help of Others

    HR shouldn't try to boost morale on its own.

    At Continental Realty Corp. in Baltimore, a cultural events committee plans events with an HR team member chairing the group to ensure that policies are followed and events are appropriate to the workplace, noted Crystal Frey, SHRM-SCP, the company's vice president of human resources.

    "I think you can be involved in the planning of fun events and also perform fair and comprehensive investigations," she said. "Helping to shape the culture of the organization is part of HR's strategic function. As such, you do want to promote a positive workplace for a variety of reasons, including hiring and retaining top talent."

    Fun activities don't have to be frivolous, she noted. They might include organized opportunities to give back to a cause that's important to team members, for example.

    While HR should encourage fun, managers should foster it, according to Walters. "Managers know their people better than HR," she said. "They should know what their teams will or will not enjoy and consider fun."

    Managers should be responsible for ensuring get-togethers are within the bounds of professionalism, she said. "And when that doesn't happen? Then HR comes into the picture to conduct the investigation" of misconduct, she said.

    Dual Roles

    Sharing the role of boosting morale with others doesn't mean HR should abandon that responsibility.

    "HR professionals definitely need to encourage fun at work," said Joyce Chastain, SHRM-SCP, a regulatory compliance consultant with The Krizner Group in Tallahassee, Fla.

    Just this past holiday season, at a client's office party, Chastain watched an HR professional who was dancing and having a great time leave the dance floor to deal with an employee who she had witnessed behaving inappropriately. The employee had drunk too much. The HR professional had a conversation with the employee, walked the worker out of the party, called Uber and sent the employee home.

    The HR pro "was encouraging fun times and almost simultaneously taking care of business," Chastai