Sexual Harassment Cases Show the Ineffectiveness of Going to H.R.

Emery Lindsley said was ignored when she went to the human resources department of her former employer with a complaint about an executive. “She didn’t even write it down,” Ms. Lindsley said. “She didn’t seem to take it serious at all.”

Emery Lindsley was addressing her food and beverage staff at the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel in Texas in 2012 when a corporate executive suddenly placed his hand over her mouth to keep her from speaking.

The executive then began commenting on the appearance of a woman on Ms. Lindsley’s staff, even asking if the staff member had a steady relationship with her boyfriend, Ms. Lindsley recalled.

As she had been taught at the company’s annual — and mandatory — harassment training, Ms. Lindsley reported the executive’s actions to her human resources department.

“I went to H.R. and said, you need to do something,’’ said Ms. Lindsley, who made these allegations in a lawsuit she filed against Omni Hotels & Resortsand its parent company in October. “I was embarrassed and humiliated about how he had treated me in front of my team.’’

“But she ignored me,’’ Ms. Lindsley said in an interview. “She didn’t even write it down. She didn’t seem to take it serious at all.”

Ms. Lindsley’s experience illustrates the complicated role that human resources departments play in harassment cases. The recent outpouring of complaints from women about mistreatment in the workplace has included numerous accounts of being ignored, stymied or retaliated against by human resources units — accounts that portray them as part of the problem, not the solution.

The lack of trust manifests itself as a self-perpetuating quandary: Women are hesitant to approach human resources departments and those departments cite the absence of complaints as proof of a respectful workplace.

A 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that of all the options available to workers experiencing harassment — avoid the harasser, consult with family members — the least common response of either men or women was to take some formal action.

Experts point to a several contributing factors. Human resources departments, while officially responsible for fielding employee complaints, also work for a company that faces potential liability — an inherent conflict of interest. And for some human resource officers, conducting an investigation into harassment allegations against a top executive or star performer can be hazardous to their own careers. The result can often be that human resources personnel are more inclined to suppress allegations than get to the bottom of them.

“H.R.’s client is the company, which means that H.R. is supposed to protect the company’s interests,” Cynthia Calvert, discrimination lawyer and senior adviser to the Center for WorkLife Law in San Francisco, said in an email.

The Uber engineer Susan Fowler said she saw that calculus play out firsthand when she reported inappropriate messages from her manager to human resources. The individual was deemed a “high performer,” and received only a warning about his behavior, Ms. Fowler wrote in a blog post about her experience.

At best, human resources officials may be caught in a thankless bind.

“Most H.R. people I interact with — and I’ve probably interacted with thousands — are pretty empathetic people,” said Joseph Beachboard, a lawyer who advises companies on dealing with harassment and discrimination allegations.

“They want to resolve these disputes,” he continued. “But they’re stuck in this middle ground between are they kind of advocating for employees, or do they represent management.”

Calls for Help That End Only in Hurt

Often employees fear that human resources will help the company lash out at the accuser rather than punish the accused.

Kamee Verdrager, an employment lawyer in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, filed a legal complaint that said her supervisors at the law firm Mintz Levin, her former employer, gave her less meaningful work and unfairly harsh performance evaluations after she spoke up about experiencing harassment and after she went on maternity leave. The firm later demoted and fired her.

Ms. Verdrager’s complaint said that the firm’s human resources department enabled retaliation against her by refusing to seek evaluations from partners who praised her work but were outside her practice group — the same group where she said she had been harassed and discriminated against — despite customarily considering outside evaluations.

Mintz Levin said it couldn’t comment beyond a statement it made when it settled the case last year saying the firm and Ms. Verdrager were putting the dispute behind them. Ms. Verdrager wouldn’t comment on the case.

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