The Most Overlooked (and Effective) Step to Fighting Workplace Harassment

April 23, 2019

If your company had a sexual harassment problem, your HR department probably wouldn’t know about it. That’s because less than one-quarter of employees who experience sexual harassment actually report it.

“Most victims don’t report incidents” says Jess Ladd, CEO of Callisto, a tech solution to combat sexual assault and coercion. “They quit, and you lose good people.” That’s why anti-harassment is a growing trend for talent professionals. And while the #MeToo movement has encouraged victims to speak up, companies can still do more.

The most important thing you can do to encourage victims to come forward, Jess says, is a simple tactic that nearly every company fails to do.

It’s not a new policy. It’s not an expensive solution.

It’s something your company could do tomorrow without any outside help:

Spell out the exact process of what happens when someone reports harassment

Jess strongly recommends having clearly written information online where victims can find your exact policy and — most importantly — your process. “Have a flow chart showing what happens and in what order: who gets informed when, and when the victim loses control over the process,” she says.

Many victims don’t report harassment because they’re not sure what will happen next and don’t want to lose control again. Outlining your process in detail empowers the victim and helps them regain a sense of agency and psychological safety.

Will they be able to discuss their options or will coming forward immediately trigger an investigation? When does the accused get informed and find out who made the complaint? When can they change their mind about moving forward, and when is it out of their hands?

By clearly answering these questions, you make it easier for victims to raise these issues and combat harassment at your company.

For example, the New Zealand government’s website for public employees clearly defines sexual harassment and spells out the complaint process in painstaking detail, complete with an easy-to-follow flowchart.

“We need to realize that there’s still a really high barrier for survivors to come forward,” Jess points out. “We need to think critically about how to make reporting a viable and rational option because, right now, it can feel like you’re martyring yourself.”

She says that one of the things advocates have learned from studying police investigations is that victims are much more likely to drop out midway through when they feel like they’re being railroaded by the process rather than being presented with choices.

That’s why an effective response puts the victim in the driver's seat and empowers them to decide what information goes where and what does or does not happen, according to Jess. “If we actually want people to come forward,” she says, “we need to figure out how to help them regain their sense of agency and control, rather than take it away all over again.”

In addition, make sure every employee knows what their options are for safely reporting harassment

Communicating the ways employees can report harassment is also important. Among the talent professionals LinkedIn surveyed, the majority of male (59%) and female (65%) respondents agreed that one of the most effective strategies for combating harassment is promoting ways to safely report it.

Some employees are more comfortable talking about harassment than others. So if you offer multiple ways for them to report incidents (like in person, by phone, or online), make sure everyone is fully aware that these options are available to them.

It’s also a good idea to communicate what will happen if an employee wants to anonymously ask a question about harassment. If people are worried that even discussing harassment could get someone fired (if your company has a zero-tolerance policy, for example), they may be less likely to ask the important and difficult questions that can lead to meaningful change.

“Figure out if there is a good way for a victim to ask questions about the policy without outing who they are, like an anonymous chat with a human being who works in HR,” Jess says. “If you can structure it so that people don’t end up accidentally giving too much information and triggering an investigation, that’s really important.”

If you want employees to feel comfortable speaking up, you have to speak up about your company’s policies

Combating harassment is a top priority for employers this year. No company is immune to this type of behavior — whether employees have historically reported it or not.

“There is no workplace where this isn’t happening,” Jess says. “But there are workplaces where it’s not reported.”

Let everyone in your company know what your policy is, where they can find more information about it, and what happens if they want to ask questions. Make sure you’ve laid out the steps your organization has in place to report, investigate, and adjudicate all harassment complaints. When employers don’t clearly communicate their policies and processes around harassment, they inadvertently breed a culture of silence rather than one of respect.

“In my opinion,” Jess says, “the best thing for the company culture, for company liability, and for the individual employee is a victim-centered response that gives them as much control as possible while, of course, taking into account the rights of the accused.”

For more tips on fighting harassment at work, download the full Global Talent Trends 2019 report here.

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