Four Things HR Can Do to Encourage Employees to Report Harassment and Discrimination

HR professionals wear many hats throughout the day. Along with senior leadership, HR is responsible for creating and monitoring the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, as well as the reporting and investigation process. It is up to them to ensure that the various forms of unprofessional and harassing conduct from co-workers get addressed quickly and fairly, and to send a message to all employees that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. It sounds pretty straightforward – an incident occurs, someone reports it to HR, HR investigates, makes a reasonable determination of the appropriate course of action and the matter is closed. However, in many cases across all industries, this process is not nearly so simple.

One of the major reasons why the #metoo reckoning came to pass is that incidents of harassment and discrimination in the workplace are grossly underreported. The EEOC’s 2016 Study of Harassment in the Workplace report found that only 30% of individuals who experienced harassment talked with a supervisor, manager, or union representative and only 6-13% file a formal complaint at work. The reasons why employees fail to report the behavior or file a complaint stem from a number of reasons, most notably the fear of retaliation, lack of clarity on company’s policies and procedures and the general feeling that nothing will happen regardless, so it would be a waste of time.

When the tools put in place by an organization to combat harassment and discrimination are not utilized, regardless of the reason, it makes it that much more difficult for HR to do their jobs properly. Without knowledge that a certain co-worker made offensive remarks at a client meeting, HR cannot begin to notice a potential pattern of behavior and won’t take the necessary steps to counsel, discipline and/or terminate this employee, thereby making it more likely that this behavior will occur again. The fact that HR is not receiving formal complaints should not lead to the assumption that the culture is just so wonderful that no one is doing or saying anything they shouldn’t. In contrast, a lack of reports should indicate to HR that the culture has perhaps reached a level of toxicity where employees don’t want to speak up and/or don’t trust the reporting process.

So, what can HR do to encourage reporting? Here are four steps to take to get employees to feel more comfortable with the process and to trust that HR and the company is on their side.

1. Start a facilitated dialogue
Employees most likely received a handbook on their first day of work all of the policies and procedure laid out, but they also probably stuffed it away in a drawer and have not looked at it again since. Getting groups of employees together to review the specific company policies is an important first step. HR should be present for these conversations and, where possible, it should also be led by an outside facilitator who can ground the group in a conversation about diversity, bias, harassment and overall company culture. These issues are all interrelated and should be looked at holistically. Pairing the larger conversation about how to recognize bias, what the various forms of inappropriate behavior look like in the workplace and what constitutes harassment with the company’s specific language is a great way to allow employees to understand the exact values and message that the company is sending and what the appropriate steps to take are in case of an incident.

2. Be transparent and communicative about the process
In the workshops we facilitate with organizations across all industries, one of the biggest things we hear over and over from employees is that they don’t know what happens after a complaint is filed. Often times, the issue stems from an example of a time when someone did file a complaint to HR, and then never heard anything about it again. Making sure HR commits to following up with each complainant and any witnesses who become part of the inquiry creates trust the in the process and a confidence that HR hears their voices and respects them enough to take the necessary actions. Even if there is no concrete plan of action yet, giving a weekly or biweekly update to the interested parties ensures that everyone is aware of the status and will be informed of the resolution when the decision is made. If you file a complaint that descends into a void, you certainly won’t be very likely to file another one the next time.

3. Train supervisors to know the policy
An HR department cannot be the sole ingredient when determining culture in an organization. The executive team plays a crucial role in the recipe, leading by example, showing concern for their co-workers and direct reports, and taking incidents and complaints seriously when they become aware of them. Supervisors and management need to understand the company policies and procedures inside and out, and what their roles and responsibilities might be with respect to them. In many companies, leaders have a duty to report incidents of which they become aware, even if the victim does not report, and even if the victim does not want them to report. Leaders need to know what is required of them and be a good resource for anyone who wants to come forward but may not be ready to go directly to HR. They should encourage complaints be formally reported and should also be compassionate allies in helping an employee navigate these waters, so that everyone feels protected, valued and respected. If we feel our complaints are falling on deaf ears of those in leadership positions, how can we be expected to ever speak up?

4. Invest in an anonymous reporting tool
The fear of retaliation is the number one reason why discrimination and harassment at work remains so under-reported. Employees fear backlash both professionally and reputationally, and for good reason. One 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. One way to reduce this fear is to invest in an anonymous reporting tool (AllVoices and Talk to Spot are two examples) that allows employees to file formal complaints about an incident without having to personally get involved. This may not always be the answer where, for example, an investigation needs to be opened and witnesses need to be questioned. But in many cases, when it may be a minor infraction or where the complainant does not wish to take the incident public, an anonymous reporting tool can allow HR to become aware of a situation, and potentially to learn when an individual is committing ongoing and repeat offenses. There are also platforms available that allow for easy documentation of incidents by employees, although they do not mandate anonymity. Companies like Speakfully allow employees to quickly and easily log an incident into an aggregated platform for HR to review, which will provide crucial data and information to understand what’s going on within a company.

Only when employees feel empowered and supported enough to file incident reports can a company truly start to understand its culture, and take action.

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