Even if an organization is doing everything right in the name of harassment prevention, at some point a situation will arise. When it does, having a harassment reporting and case management system in place can be the difference between a good outcome and a horrible one.  

The Case for Harassment Reporting Systems

Implementing a reporting and case management system that is straightforward and trustworthy is a fundamental part of any anti-harassment strategy. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that reporting systems “are among the most critical elements” of an integrated anti-harassment effort. 

The need for effective reporting systems is so urgent precisely because harassment is so chronically underreported by both victims and witnesses. 

Ninety percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never initiate formal action, such as reporting a complaint or filing a charge, according to the EEOC. In fact, reporting is the least common reaction to harassment. Instead, victims employ avoidance, denial or simply putting up with the misconduct. 

Sadly, there is good cause for workers’ reticence. One study showed three-quarters of workers suffered retaliation after they came forward about harassment. This fear of backlash has led to the development of anonymous reporting systems to encourage workers to come forward without fear of retribution. 

Another reason to implement a harassment reporting system is that its very existence sends a powerful signal to employees that management takes harassment seriously and holds itself accountable for taking action when it does occur. This creates a virtuous cycle in which workers are more likely to communicate complaints because management has built trust.  

The Need for Multiple Reporting Channels 

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 federal agency states that a “robust reporting system” should include multiple pathways to lodge complaints. This includes 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. 

Having multiple channels eliminates some of the obstacles that keep people from reporting harassment in the first place because the reporting technology itself can influence whether people come forward. For example, for one person the big hurdle may be facing a fellow employee to discuss a sensitive and stressful topic. For another, it’s having her identity revealed. Still, for others, it’s having to talk to a live person about something so painful. This can hold true whether it’s someone they work every day with or a call-taker at the end of an anonymous hotline. So, a telephone call might be more natural for one employee whereas another might prefer taking a human out of the equation completely and conversing with a chatbot instead. Many companies have therefore adopted some form of anonymous reporting to combat harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Different Ways to Report Harassment 

Face-to-Face Reporting  

A live, in-person conversation may seem like the most natural way of reporting an upsetting event, but it’s clear from the massive lack of underreporting that this is simply not the case. Walking into someone’s office to report harassment has always been an option, but the data clearly shows it’s not something employees are inclined to do. Conversations with a superior or with a human resources representative are neither private nor confidential and can often seem daunting. Because simply walking into the boss’ office or sitting down with someone in HR to report an incident of harassment is easier said than done, more formalized systems have been created to remove some of the barriers. 

Anonymous Reporting Tools 

Employee hotlines 

Employee hotlines allow those with complaints to dial a number, privately at any time of day or night, in order to report it. Most often they can do so anonymously but also have the option of giving their names. 

Hotlines have been a mainstay at many companies since the passage of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a sweeping federal law designed to combat financial fraud. One section of the act requires publicly traded companies to set up a mechanism for employees to anonymously report suspected fraud. 

While these hotlines were not initially set up for reporting harassment, they have been in existence for some time now and lessons can be gleaned from them. Hotlines are valued by some organizations for their confidentiality, convenience, reliance on expert and impartial third-party vendors, and for providing tips to management in a timely fashion. The negatives include receiving vague complaints, incomplete information-gathering, low employee awareness of the hotline, the anonymous nature that can make it difficult to fully investigate complaints, and a cynical perception amongst some workers that a hotline is simply a compliance tool as opposed to a meaningful undertaking.

One study showed that only 11 percent of employees use the hotline as their first avenue of communication when reporting misconduct. Most opted to go to their direct supervisor or to executives higher up in the organization. These data point to the need for multiple avenues of reporting since no one source is going to provide the full picture to leadership about the situation in the workplace.  

Webforms 

A webform is another channel through which employees may submit a concern or complaint. Like hotlines, they are often run by independent third-party vendors or through the employer itself and can offer the option to remain anonymous. 

Webforms formats vary in how they collect information, with either written responses through one long, continuous form or with a series of individual questions continuing on different screens. Unlike hotlines, webforms offer a one-way communication format with no opportunity for immediate follow-up questions. Like hotlines, surveys have shown that most employees are not comfortable with web reporting. 

Chatbots

Chatbots are computer programs designed to simulate interactive conversations with users using natural language. They utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate interactive human conversation by understanding the intent of the user and using a set of key pre-determined user phrases to respond. Virtual assistants such as Alexa from Amazon and Siri for Apple are both driven by AI.  Many consider chatbots to be the most innovative and promising ways for people and computers to interact since they facilitate rapid and tailored data collection.  

Most computer users have chatted with a bot at some point in their lives, whether they are aware of it or not. Companies utilize chatbots on customer service contact pages and via Facebook Messenger. Business Insider reports that by 2020, 80 percent of businesses will use chatbots.

With their 24-7 availability and instantaneous response times, chatbots are already beginning to play an exciting role in harassment reporting. They have the potential to eliminate much of the friction that prevents reporting by providing a whole new way to report harassment. Chatbots provide a two-sided and intelligence-driven interaction with the user, pursuing specific lines of inquiry in response to the answers the user gives.  Because many who have been harassed or discriminated against feel shame or fear, the ability to report anonymously without human involvement while also receiving instant feedback may induce people to come forward. 

In an era where harassment has made more headlines and garnered more discussion than ever before, companies should implement a holistic reporting and case management system as a fundamental piece of any anti-harassment strategy. Furthermore, because harassment reporting rates are so low due to fear of retaliation, the suite of reporting tools should allow a way for employees to make anonymous reports. (Read more about the role of anonymous reporting in harassment prevention.)