Employees experiencing harassment aren’t the only ones who pay a high price psychologically, emotionally, professionally, and financially. The organizations they work for also suffer from decreased morale and productivity, higher churn and battered reputations in the marketplace. And these are just the indirect costs. 

In its groundbreaking 2016 report on workplace harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laid out what it called a “compelling business case” for stopping harassment: in 2015, it recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment. As the federal agency in charge of civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, the EEOC is the authority on harassment, which it describes as “a drag on performance—and the bottom-line.”

The EEOC states that a “robust reporting system” should include multiple pathways to lodge complaints including avenues for anonymous reporting in order to achieve a harassment-free environment.

Given these immense costs, organizations must have in place a holistic harassment prevention system that measures, prevents and intervenes. Intervention is such a critical piece of an effective strategy because if incidents do occur, employees will have a formal way to report them, and to do so anonymously if they wish. Without a workplace harassment reporting system to track misconduct such as sexual harassment and discrimination, management remains in the dark, unable to intervene to protect its workers or itself. 

The Case for Anonymous Reporting 

The #MeToo and  Times Up movements have done much to raise awareness about workplace harassment and to encourage victims to speak up. But the disheartening fact remains that most employees never report harassment. Fear of retaliation plays a major role in why people don’t come forward and it’s with good cause: one study found that 75 percent of workers faced retaliation after reporting their mistreatment. One of the most powerful tools in combating that fear is an anonymous reporting system. 

The second most common reason individuals do not report misconduct is the lack of confidentiality. The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies found that 42 percent of employees who observed misconduct cited confidentiality for their failure to report it. 

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the authors list ten ways to prevent corporate misbehavior. One of those ways is to “make sure employees aren’t retaliated against for speaking up.” To that end, the authors advise that companies build a “well-publicized reporting system, so employees can report (anonymously or confidentially if they choose) ethical and compliance concerns.”

Similarly, the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation writes that “anonymous and confidential reporting mechanisms help foster a climate whereby company employees are more likely to report or seek guidance regarding potential or actual wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.”

All the evidence points to a need for anonymous reporting systems as a key part of creating a harassment-free environment in the workplace.

What is Anonymous Reporting? 

Anonymous reporting is a system that protects the identity of victims and witnesses, so they can come forward without fear of retaliation. Anonymous reporting systems are designed to allow employees to file reports without their names or their identities becoming known to their employer.  Most often, an independent third-party vendor runs the reporting system so as to ensure anonymity as well as integrity in the process. 

There are many models for how the information reported is acted upon by the employer. The anonymous report is generally routed to the appropriate party or parties within the organization who will conduct an investigation according to the company’s internal procedures. (Read more about 10 best practices for anonymous reporting systems.)

How is Anonymity Ensured? 

The biggest factor in protecting anonymity is implementing a reporting system that is run by a third-party company.  This is the best way to ensure anonymity, since obviously if in-house employees are taking reports, the employee could easily be recognized simply by some of the details provided. Because third-party systems don’t know the individuals within an organization and because they are usually available outside of work hours, they offer an added measure of assurance. 

Depending on the technology driving the reporting system, anonymity is assured through various protective measures. 

Anonymity Through Hotlines

With employee hotlines, the specialists answering the phone first provide callers with the information they need to safeguard their identity in the course of making a report. The caller will then ask questions in order to make a report. Oftentimes, the operator on an ethics hotline will generate a unique identification code for the case and will request a password from the caller. The code and password are required by the caller to make any additions or changes to the report as well as to check on the status of the case. Callers to the employee hotline may be asked to follow up a few days after filing the report to view the details and respond to any follow-up questions. They will need their ID code and password to do so.  In addition, phone calls are not recorded nor is call-tracking technology such as caller ID used. The information passed onto the employer is expressly designed to prevent the complainant from being traced back to a specific person.

Anonymity Through Web-based Reporting

For web-based reporting systems such as webforms and chatbots, keeping the reporter’s anonymity required a different set of tools. Since any report generated online is associated with an IP address that could be used to identify the user, a credible third-party web-based reporting company will not maintain records of IP addresses, nor associate a report with an IP address that could reveal the filer’s identity. A legitimate third-party vendor will also provide a guarantee never to trace a firm’s internal computer to any complaint made.

Workplace harassment takes a heavy toll on employees and on companies. A holistic harassment prevention system will have in place an anonymous reporting system to encourage and enable employees to speak up without fear of retaliation. Without anonymous reporting systems, companies will be operating in the dark about harassment in the workplace.