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What's wrong with HR and how can it be fixed?

Human resources failures are a staple of industry horror stories, so we looked at why and what can be done to improve systems to protect employees

In late June, a former employee from an Ubisoft Eastern European studio approached with a story about the culture at that location of the publisher's studio network.

Inspired by the flood of ex-Ubisoft employees going public with stories of mistreatment in the company's North American studio system, they wanted to add to a then-growing pile of stories about the company culture across the Atlantic.

In this individual's case, the studio they worked at had a group of senior developers who would routinely refer to one another as a racial slur for a group they were not part of. Uncomfortable with the behavior and how it was negatively affecting a number of people in the studio, the employee reported the incident to HR and was told the senior developers were "just being playful" and it was a part of that studio's culture.

That outcome will be anything but shocking to anyone who has been paying attention in recent years as numerous game developers have gone public with stories of abuse and harassment they suffered through the workplace.

In many of these stories, the developers reported the offenses to their companies' HR departments but saw no action taken. HR typically either ignored the report, excused the offender's actions, or decided that the reporting employee was the problem.

In other stories, the developers explain that they didn't report their situations to HR because they believed that nothing would come of it.

HR failures and a lack of faith in the system were so common among the stories that we decided to reach out to various HR people in the industry for answers. We wanted to know why this keeps happening, what sort of systemic issues might be in place that keep even well-meaning HR people from taking proper action on cases, and how companies can proactively improve their own HR processes to support employees and ensure they are not enabling abusers.

It turns out this is not a subject the HR people we contacted were eager to discuss.

Anyone Want to Discuss Their Profession's Fundamental Problems with the Press?

A number of games industry HR contacts we reached out to never responded. Others declined politely, saying they didn't have the bandwidth to help, it was too sensitive a subject, or they didn't have anything to add to the conversation.

One person who worked with HR in games but wanted to remain anonymous provided us with a brief statement, saying that HR may be positioned as a support structure for staff, but is primarily interested in protecting the organization.

"At best, it's about damage control. At worst, it is actively hostile to those prepared to lodge a complaint"

A person who has worked with HR in games

"At best, it's about damage control," they said. "At worst, it is actively hostile to those prepared to lodge a complaint. The blend of 'formal' and 'informal' complaint procedures enables organizations to flex the rules quite often, and gag orders - which usually accompany a lump sum payment - are employed to secure people's silence."

The reticence of HR professionals to go on the record wasn't entirely unexpected, as the article we were pitching was premised on the idea that there is a key failure in companies' HR departments that is repeated throughout the industry and beyond. Just raising the question could be seen as an attack on the entire field of HR.

So we reached out to people whose job it is to represent the entire field of HR. The Society for Human Resource Management is the largest organization of HR professionals in the world with more than 300,000 members. Its website has a "press room" page offering experts to talk on a variety of subjects, but none seemed focused on this particular subject. We sent multiple requests to the press contact email asking for an expert who could discuss this issue with us, but never received a reply.

We reached out to HR consulting firm Mercer, which has been specifically advertising a program for the #MeToo era to help companies "proactively assess and solve issues around employee behavior and perceptions of civility, inclusivity or harassment at work." They thanked us for reaching out but said they would pass.

View from an HR Veteran

We didn't find anyone in HR willing to go on the record and speak on the subject until we saw the schedule for next week's Game Developers Conference Summer 2020, where Andrew Hilson is set to present a talk titled "HR's Guide to Preventing Harassment, Abuse and Racism."

Hilson is the co-founder and CEO of the consultancy and headhunting firm Expansion Pack Search and Selection, and has more than a decade of HR experience with stints at EB Games and Ubisoft Toronto mixed with other positions outside the games industry.

When we speak with Hilson, he's about three seconds into his first answer before he identifies what he calls the conflict of interest at the heart of current HR setups.

"Who does Human Resources serve? When you get down to brass tacks, they work for the corporation," Hilson says, adding that the current outpouring of people taking their stories public is "way overdue."

"Human Resources always exists, for lack of a better term, in fear of production"

Andrew Hilson

We ask if HR might have problems handling complaints appropriately when they are ultimately subordinate to C-level executives who are perceived to be untouchable and in some cases may even be the abusers employees are reporting.

"Fundamentally, that is the basic problem right from the get-go," Hilson says. "Human Resources always exists, for lack of a better term, in fear of production. You're serving production's needs, and that's how you're treated working in a Human Resources department in the games industry. Sure, that's a bit of a broad stroke to cast, but I can tell you having worked at Ubisoft Toronto and for Ubisoft Toronto in Montreal a little bit, that's exactly what the attitude is. You serve production and whatever the hell they want, that's how it gets done. So right from the beginning, it's a broken model and that's not the way it should get done.

Andrew Hilson

"The reason people don't feel comfortable approaching Human Resources is because there's so much history of Human Resources not doing anything and serving the organization as opposed to serving the humans they're supposed to be taking care of. It's one of those situations where it's like, 'Do I want to put myself out there and possibly by ostracized for 'whining' about the culture or the situation or the abuse I'm experiencing, or do I just want to put my head down, get on with it, and get paid?' "

Hilson says he has personal experience being on the other side of the equation in an HR interaction from one of his previous employers outside of games that he says was "steeped in systemic racism."

"When I brought it up to HR, they 'investigated,' came back and said, 'Nope, we didn't really find anything here,'" Hilson says. "The situation I had brought up was pretty clearly racist, and that led to my exiting the organization because I couldn't function properly in that sort of environment."

As for how to prevent situations like that from playing out in one's own company, Hilson says leadership has to go beyond paying lip service to the type of culture it wants to have and be willing to put resources toward achieving that.

"The thing you always end up with from a recruitment perspective is, 'We need to hire a widget maker, and we need this person to be a superstar, and we need them yesterday,'" Hilson says. "And the follow-up to that is always, 'Also, if you can find somebody from a marginalized group - women, people of color - if you can do that, that would be awesome.'

Hilson says doing that right might take about six months, and a company making that request would benefit from a management training program and diversity and inclusion training for the entire organization to boot. But when they prioritize needing somebody yesterday, what they end up with is almost always going to be a white male.

"Most folks don't do these things with intention. We don't hire folks and bring people into the organization who look the same as us with intention. It's these unconscious biases that are there"

Andrew Hilson

"The bottom line when it comes to hiring and recruitment is everybody wants somebody yesterday, and even though you have great intentions about diversifying your workforce and being inclusive, that's never a model that's truly practiced," Hilson says. "I can definitely do a - for lack of a better term - a 'diversity hire' for you, but you have to give me the time to do it. And no one gives you the time to do it. That just doesn't happen. And they don't put the programs in place to make sure these things happen."

He adds, "Most folks don't do these things with intention. We don't hire folks and bring people into the organization who look the same as us with intention. It's these unconscious biases that are there. And if you're asking me how to fix that problem, we need time. We need a lot of time. That's literally what we need, but nobody's got that time."

Hilson also brings up the subject of unionization as a way to improve employees' representation when it comes to HR complaints. He clearly has some reservations about what games industry unionization would look like, but says, "There's a certain function here where it would be good to have some sort of advocate for employees that would be at arms' length."

What Does the Research Say?

Hilson readily concedes he doesn't have all the answers. Fortunately, when we weren't getting any traction with the games industry and HR organizations, we were also looking for answers from the academic sector, where we found the work of Professor Paula McDonald, associate dean of research at the Queensland University of Technology Business School.

McDonald's research is focused on workplace sexual harassment, and made a specific point that her findings were limited to that and don't address questions of bullying or other employee misconduct.

McDonald says there's a large body of evidence that workplace sexual harassment is chronically underreported by both women and men.

"This is because targets anticipate accurately the overwhelmingly negative consequences of reporting," McDonald says. "Complaints processes in most organizations are generally poor and are oftentimes the very reason for complaints escalate to a commission or court. Research shows that complaints are often delayed, drawn out, and ineffective."

She says people who suffered sexual harassment at work may worry about how reporting it would hurt their career, think they won't be believed, or that nothing will be done as a result. They also may be worried about being seen as a victim or somebody who is uptight and can't take a joke. McDonald notes that the latter accusation is much more commonly made against women than men.

"Timely and effective responses to sexual harassment complaints require courage, strong interpersonal skills and a focus on the behaviours, not the individual making the complaint"

Professor Paula McDonald

While many people think that sexual harassment complaints would be better handled by HR than by an employee's direct manager, McDonald says that's not always the case for basically the same conflict of interest reason Hilson identified.

"[HR managers] are also employed by organizations to facilitate productivity and efficiency around human resources," McDonald says. "A sexual harassment complaint for some HR managers, may represent a threat to organizational efficiency in the sense that the complainant is 'the problem.'"

Regardless of whether a complaint goes through a direct manager or an HR manager, McDonald says there's a good chance the resolution will be mishandled even if the company has a policy or procedure in place to handle it. She says resolving such delicate situations appropriately requires a specific set of skills and a degree of understanding that these managers often lack.

"Timely and effective responses to sexual harassment complaints require courage, strong interpersonal skills and a focus on the behaviors, not the individual making the complaint," she says.

While handling complaints, managers may write incidents off as personality clashes, deny the employee's account of events, or reinterpret what happened.

"A consequence of denial or an attribution of the problem as an interpersonal issue is often victimization," she says. "The target is labelled as a whinger, someone who can't get on with others, or simply a problem employee."

She also notes that when trying to verify an employee's account of events, companies will sometimes apply the same standard of evidence found in a criminal trial, where guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Because sexual harassment so often happens outside of public view, she says that standard is inappropriate and too often allows for serial harassers to thrive. She instead says the burden of proof should be "on the balance of probabilities" as in civil lawsuits.

Some companies try to set up a mediation process for employees and their alleged harassers to work out grievances, but McDonald says it's usually better not to attempt them "because managers are often not qualified to facilitate such meeting and they may do more damage."

Likewise, she prefers external investigations from people with substantial expertise in sexual harassment matters to internal ones, and says character references should be avoided "because as one senior lawyer once told me, 'you can be as nice as pie and a serial sexual harasser.'"

Finally, in cases where the employee cannot show that sexual harassment occurred to the standard of proof from a civil lawsuit, McDonald says it's "crucial" for companies to acknowledge that doesn't mean the offense didn't occur.

But like Hilson, McDonald acknowledges there are still unanswered questions when it comes to how to deal with these problems. For example, some companies had informal reporting channels that employees can use with decentralized complaint handlers responsible for outreach, education, and dispute resolution, and people in management trained to assist with informal solutions like a quiet conversation with a harasser to get them to stop the offending behavior.

McDonald says some research says those set-ups can be effective in larger organizations, but others say employees see a better likelihood for justice through formal dispute processes.

While there may not be consensus on specific actions that need to be taken, there was a general agreement among the people we spoke with that change is needed.

As the previously mentioned person working with games HR tells us, "Until organisations formulate safe, secure - or even anonymous - means of raising complaints and we stop permitting colleagues to excuse bad behavior as 'banter' or minimize someone's experience by calling them 'too sensitive,' abuse in the industry is unlikely to change."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.