For harassment prevention programs to work, they must not only include a channel for anonymous reporting, but an entire culture must be built around proving to employees that management really does want them to stand up and report harassment, discrimination, and other workplace misconduct.

Here are some key best practices when it comes to anonymous workplace reporting:

1. Set the Tone at Top

Creating a culture that cherishes diversity and inclusion and does not countenance harassment and discrimination starts at the top. Leadership must set that tone that reporting wrongdoing is not just valued, but an expectation of any good employee. This can go a long way in mitigating the fear and stigma associated with reporting wrongdoing.

2. Make it Part of a Holistic System 

 An anonymous reporting system in of itself is only one part of a larger harassment prevention and compliance program. The three main pillars of any holistic anti-harassment system are measurement, prevention, and intervention. Measurement involves establishing benchmarks and then regularly continuing to take the pulse of the situation through such means as climate surveys. Prevention depends on leadership and accountability as well as training programs that may include online anti-harassment training. Proper intervention requires a procedure that is tied to a reporting and case management system and includes a way to make anonymous reports. 

3. Set Expectations

 A key best practice is making it crystal clear to employees who make a report what they can expect from the process, e.g. what the follow-up will be after they lodge a report, how the investigative process works and what they can expect at the end of it. If the employee chooses to remain anonymous, that will add challenges to the fact-finding and follow-up process that they should be made aware of.

 4. Prevent Retaliation 

Retaliation is not only real; it’s pervasive. One study found that fully three-quarters of workers suffered some form of retaliation after speaking out about their mistreatment. One way to prevent retaliation is to provide a way for employees to file a report anonymously. On top of that, a company must have a written non-retaliation policy in place that must be broadcast regularly to the staff so they are aware it is illegal to retaliate against whistleblowers.

5. Make it Multipurpose

Reporting systems that are designed to receive information about all types of misconduct are bound to work better than those that single-mindedly focus on just harassment or just fraud. The more wide open a company defines the usage for its anonymous reporting system, the more employees will feel comfortable coming forward to use it.  The multipurpose reporting system that goes beyond sexual harassment or even harassment and discrimination in general, in turn, will provide more comprehensive data to leadership about the workplace environment, allowing it to take preventative measures and to intervene when necessary.  

 6. Actively Promote it 

Many companies make the mistake of going through the time and expense of setting up an anonymous reporting system and then doing nothing to actively promote it. One corporate email launching the system accompanies by some signage in the photocopier room is simply not enough. Positive reinforcement of reporting can be done through internal education and marketing campaigns, training materials, newsletters, intranets, town hall meetings, videos and so on.

 7. Keep The Message Positive 

 While it cannot be argued that the issues that are going to get reported through an anonymous reporting system are going to be negative, there is good reason to keep the messaging about it positive. The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation writes that using positive verbiage such as accountability, transparency, responsibility, and citizenship rather than negative words such as fraud, corruption, embezzlement, bribery, and crime, “may help alleviate psychological barriers” that prevent employees from reporting misconduct.

 8. Offer Incentives 

Companies might want to consider reporting incentives for those who come forward. These could range from fixed monetary rewards as well to extra vacation days.

 9. Provide Multiple Reporting Methods  

The EEOC reports “there is a significant body of research establishing the many concerns that employees have with current reporting systems in their workplaces.” Because of those concerns, the EEOC describes “broad support for reporting systems that are multifaceted, including a choice of procedures, and choices.” The types of harassment reporting methods include talking with managers or human resource departments as well as more formalized reporting systems ranging from employee hotlines to online webforms to chatbots that utilize the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. 

10. Use a Third-Party Vendor 

Let’s face it. It’s can be quite a challenge to convince some employees that their identities (not to mention their jobs) will remain secure if they report wrongdoing to HR or their managers. It may be equally daunting to make employees feel safe reporting misconduct through an in-house reporting system. Bringing in an independent third-party vendor to run the program is one way to ensure integrity, neutrality, and fairness in the process.

Together, all 10 of these best practices will go a long way in creating a harassment-free environment in the workplace