While the #MeToo movement has emboldened many victims of workplace harassment to speak up about their experiences, the bleak truth is that the overwhelming majority of employees who experience harassment never report it.  The same goes for those who witness it. 

There is no shortage of reasons for this. Fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, fear no action will be taken, fear of being labeled a ‘snitch,’ fear the accuser will end up being blamed for the situation. It turns every single one of those concerns is well-founded. One study found that fully three-quarters of workers suffered some form of retaliation after speaking out about their mistreatment. And of course, retaliation discourages future reporting of misconduct, creating a vicious cycle. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 90 percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never initiate formal action, such as reporting a complaint or filing a charge. In fact, reporting is the least common reaction to harassment. Instead, victims employ avoidance, denial or simply putting up with the misconduct. 

This chronic underreporting should be of great concern to employers given the problem is so pervasive. Almost 60 percent of women report having experienced harassment. Harassment doesn’t just happen to women; emerging evidence indicates that sexual harassment against men is actually on the rise. Also, there are many forms of harassment beyond sexual harassment.  Workers can face harassment on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, age, ethnicity or nationality, color, and religion. 

So, how do employers combat harassment in the workplace? There is obviously no single solution for such a complex and fraught issue. The three main pillars of any holistic harassment prevention and compliance program are measure, prevent and intervene. 

Measure

Measurement involves establishing benchmarks and then regularly continuing to take the pulse of the situation through such means as climate surveys. Climate surveys can be used to assess whether employees believe harassment not only exists in the workplace but whether it is tolerated. 

Companies are well-served to benchmark to assess their own baselines and also to determine where they stand compared to other companies in their industry. Internal climate surveys are used to gather information on demographics, perceptions of leadership, harassment occurrence rates, attitudes and perceptions of harassment. Responses are usually recorded anonymously. Surveys allow the company to get a bead on what is happening inside its walls, identify goals, set priorities, build awareness and measure progress. 

Prevent

Experts agree that the most powerful way to create a culture in which workplace harassment will not be tolerated is through leadership and accountability. 

In its groundbreaking 2016 report on workplace harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—the federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination—stated that “Employees must believe that their leaders are authentic in demanding a workplace free of harassment.”  

The EEOC states organizations “must conduct effective trainings” on the policies and procedures. Training comes in two forms: in-person or online anti-harassment training. The philosophical underpinnings of training programs vary widely. Some are fact-driven based on the letter of the law and emphasize facts over feelings; others cover the essentials while also highlighting emotions and self-reflection. Additionally, an innovative and promising new type of harassment prevention training highlights the importance of bystander intervention, giving people the tools they need to intervene when they witness harassment or events that may be leading up to it. Lastly, some training programs are one-size-fits-all, while others are customizable according to the needs of the organization. 

Topics covered in harassment prevention training courses vary depending on whether it is given in an academic or corporate setting. The subjects can also vary according to what is mandated by the state. Corporate harassment prevention training may include the following: Unlawful Harassment Training and the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example. Whereas campus subject matter might include the above as well as: Consent and Sexual Assault Prevention, Hazing and Bullying Prevention, Inclusion, Title IX and Alcohol and Drug Use.

Intervene

Proper intervention requires a procedure that is tied to a reporting and case management system.  Intervention can be thought of like the final piece in the process. It’s dealing with an incident that is occurring or has already occurred. While most people are familiar with employee hotlines (sometimes called ethics hotlines), reporting systems actually come in many shapes and sizes. However, what they all generally do is to record and transmit data to the appropriate individuals within the organization as part of a workflow process that ensures all claims are assigned, investigated and resolved.  Read more about online harassment prevention reporting and case management systems.  

Conclusion

The rash of recent high-profile harassment and discrimination cases in the #metoo movement has created an unprecedented awareness around the issue. Due to the chronic levels of underreporting, organizations are operating in the dark and at great danger to themselves if they do not take active steps to measure their level of risk, implement training to mitigate risk and give employees and safe and trusted way to report their concerns and complaints.