September 2, 2019

Anonymous Workplace Reporting: 10 Best Practices

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

September 2, 2019

Anonymous Workplace Reporting: How to Make it Effective

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.”

—Elements of an Effective Whistleblower Hotline, Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation 

An anonymous reporting system is not a panacea that will magically convince employees to overcome their fears about coming forward to report harassment, discrimination, and other workplace misconduct. There will always be individuals who prefer to talk to their managers face-to-face. At the other end of the spectrum, some people will never come forward to report what they’ve experienced or witnessed, no matter how robust their company’s anti-harassment program is.

For everyone in between, an anonymous way to report misconduct is a vital cog in any workplace ethics and compliance program. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) makes the case for anonymous reporting in its “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace” report. It states that “effective reporting systems for allegations of harassment are among the most critical elements of a holistic anti-harassment effort” and specifies that a path to anonymous reporting must be a part of any comprehensive reporting system

This is because the fear of retaliation is a major factor driving the woeful lack of reporting. An estimated 90 percent of people who have experienced harassment never initiate formal action, such as reporting a complaint or filing a charge, the EEOC reports. 

In its report “Elements of an Effective Whistleblower Hotline” the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation found that “In companies with an internal hotline, tips account for over half of all fraud detection versus only one-third of detections in companies with no internal hotline. Notably, the rate of discovering fraud “by accident” more than doubles when a company fails to offer a hotline.”

Create a Speak-Up Culture

One of the five principles of a high-quality ethics and compliance program is encouraging a “Speak Up” culture, according to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, which it defines as an organization that “encourages, protects and values the reporting of concerns and suspected wrongdoing.”  When employees felt encouraged to make their voices heard, even when it was with bad news, favorable ethics outcomes increased by 14 times, according to the ECI report, entitled “Measuring The Impact Of Ethics & Compliance Programs.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The ECI report found that other critical actions a company can take that result in favorable outcomes involve the company’s communication about the anonymous reporting system. It lists the following key ways a business should behave in order to encourage reporting from its employees.

  • Company Responds in a Timely Manner after Reporting;
  • Management Keeps Employees Informed After Reporting, and
  • Company Explains Reporting Procedure/Process. 

All these points underscore the fact that a company is unlikely to reap benefits from an anonymous reporting system unless they actively communicate on its behalf and respond quickly to any reports they receive. 

Constantly Evaluate

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation states that companies must constantly and actively evaluate their anonymous reporting systems to ensure their success. The forum states that evaluation is required to ensure they  “are operating as intended and are effective in preventing and identifying unethical or potentially unlawful activity, including corporate fraud, securities violations and employment discrimination or harassment. This evaluation should be a key element of every company’s assessment of its compliance and ethics program.”

The report goes on to list key factors necessary to make anonymous reporting systems such as whistleblower hotlines effective. They include:

  • Ensuring anonymity and confidentiality. (Read more about how anonymous reporting works here.)
  • Preventing retaliation against those who report wrongdoing. (Read about why so few employees report wrongdoing.)
  • Publicizing the hotline. 
  • Creating multiple uses for the hotline, including a helpline. (Learn more about how anonymous reporting systems can go beyond capturing just harassment.)
  • Recording and analyzing statistics. 
  • Benchmarking compliance programs to internal and external data sources. 
  • Hiring a third-party provider to manage the hotline.  
  • Allowing multiple methods for submitting tips. (Read about why multiple reporting channels are needed.)
  • Evaluating, testing and auditing the reporting systems. 

All the major studies show that a company cannot implement an anonymous reporting system and then sit by passively and assume that it will work. The business must play an active role in ensuring its success by encouraging people to speak up and then communicating about and closely evaluating to systems that have been put in place to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace. (Read more about best practices for anonymous workplace reporting systems.) 

September 2, 2019

Reporting Harassment: Why Employees Rarely Come Forward

Harassment, discrimination and other misconduct is a fact of life in the workplace. However, many of those who have been the target of it or even a witness to it, never report it to anyone. 

This may seem hard to understand. If someone is harming you or someone else on the job, of course, you would come forward to make it stop. However, the reality is the complete opposite of that. 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, including sexual harassment and discrimination. 

The EEOC describes the extent of non-reporting as “striking.”

There are a host of reasons why reporting sexual harassment and other harmful workplace behavior is so difficult and each one of them plays a role in the chronic lack of underreporting in the workplace. 

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.

Retaliation comes in many forms. The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies found that the most common type of retaliation was getting the cold shoulder—with 66 percent reporting that type of treatment from co-workers. (This may not seem like a big deal until you’ve been subjected to it.) Getting excluded from decision-making was also high up on the list, with 61 percent reporting this type of retaliation, followed by denials of promotions or raises (51%), almost losing a job (46%), getting verbally abused by a superior (40%), hours or pay cut (40%), relocation (38%), demotion (37%), verbal abuse by other employees (36%), online harassment (31%) and physical harm to person or property (29%). 

Retaliation is so “alarming” according to the National Business Ethics Survey, because it “discourages future reporting of observed misconduct, enabling problems to persist.” 

This fear of backlash has led to the development of anonymous reporting systems such as employee hotlines to encourage workers to come forward without fear of retribution. 

Confusion Over Definition

It is rarely black and white for many people whether they’ve been subjected to or witnessed “real” harassment. The #metoo movement has made it painfully clear how many people doubted themselves even though they knew something bad had happened to them and therefore never came forward. It is essential, therefore, that employers implement a holistic harassment prevention program, which includes online Anti-harassment training. Through explanation and re-enactments, high-quality training programs cut through the confusion to make it clear what types of behaviors constitute harassment, discrimination and other forms of workplace misconduct. 

Employer Inaction

Harassment reporting is often followed by an employer doing little or nothing about it. The EEOC states  that reporting is “often followed by organizational indifference or trivialization of the harassment complaint.” 

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission writes that and employers’ responses are inconsistent and, in many cases, risk being ineffective. The Commission reports that of the cases where individuals surveyed did report an incident, employers took no action in about half of those cases. This data is corroborated in the sweeping National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies. It also found a lack of faith the employer would take action as the top reason: sixty-one percent of employees who observed misconduct explained they did not report it because they “believed no corrective action would take place.”

The “Untouchable” Harasser

Employees subjected to harassment are especially wary of reporting the behavior when the harasser is in a position of high power and influence in the organization compared to the victims 

“Many individuals believed that senior colleagues, due to their position of influence within organisations, were not challenged by HR departments or other colleagues, with some describing these individuals as ‘untouchable,’” the Equality and Human Rights Commission writes. The Global Business Ethics Survey reports that discrimination in particular, 56 percent of employees indicated the misconduct was committed by those in leadership positions.  

The EEOC labels such individuals as “superstars” and describes them as the type who bring in lucrative clients or are partners in a firm or who are renowned in their field. Because of their stature, they see themselves as privileged, which may make them more prone to be harassers and for the company to look the other way and do nothing in terms of harassment prevention.

Lack of Appropriate Reporting Procedures

Some employees who are keen to report harassment fail to do so because they don’t know whom to contact or what the process is. In order to promote reporting in the process, the Equality and Human Rights Commission recommends “anonymous reporting tools” as well as “clear policies and processes communicated through induction and training.” The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 companies found that 15 percent of employees who observed misconduct did not report it because they did “not know whom to contact.”

Encouraging Employees to Report Misconduct 

A number of safeguards and systems need to be put in place to create a harassment-free environment by encouraging reporting. Written standards of what ethical workplace conduct back up by online anti-harassment training as well as a mechanism to not only seek advice and information but a way to anonymously report it. Lastly, companies must intervene and take action against those who violate workplace and standards, as well as to protect the employees who take huge personal and professional risks to come forward to report it.  

September 2, 2019

Anonymous Workplace Reporting: What it is, How it Works & Why You Need it

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. 

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