The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements each took the working world by storm, bringing to the forefront issues of workplace sexual assault, sexual and racial harassment, and discrimination. But while heightened awareness is making workplace conversations about sexism, racism, and other injustices more common, these interpersonal conversations alone will not remove the systemic challenges keeping inequity in place. One of the alarming symptoms of these challenges is the low rate at which employees report incidents of assault, harassment, and discrimination. Too many people don’t feel safe at work, and, fearing repercussions, aren’t willing or able to speak up about it. This vicious cycle keeps systemic inequity deeply entrenched within many workplaces.
Despite the high rates of sexual assault and harassment — affecting up to 90% of women in some industries — and pervasive discrimination based on race, gender, age, and sexuality — experienced or witnessed by 61% of U.S. employees — reporting rates remain extremely low. A report by the EEOC found that only 30% of employees experiencing harassment on the basis of gender, race, national origin, disability and other protected classes make internal complaints, and less than 15% file formal legal charges. A meta-analysis similarly found that fewer than one-third of workers even informally talked with a supervisor about the sexual harassment they experienced, and less than 25% filed formal reports with their employers.
These studies consistently found that the primary reason for low reporting rates is retaliation, where employers or individuals respond to reports of discrimination or mistreatment by further punishing or marginalizing the victim. Retaliation is astonishingly common: 68% of sexual harassment allegations and 42% of LGBTQ+ discrimination allegations made to the EEOC also include charges of employer retaliation. (Because the EEOC considers charges of retaliation a separate “issue” from charges of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and other protected classes, reliable data showing both retaliation and these other forms of discrimination together is sparse.)
There are several additional factors that drive low reporting rates.
One is the likelihood that victims receive any benefit from reporting in the first place. While companies encourage victims to go through internal reporting channels, these are often legalistic grievance procedures meant to reduce the risk of a lawsuit against the company. Forced arbitration, a policy adopted by many companies, requires that employees go through mandatory arbitration to resolve disputes and waive their right to sue. And even if they do, reporting to the EEOC rarely results in benefit to victims, with only 1% of federal discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claims succeeding in U.S. courts.
Another is the inflexibility of options available to victims. When MIT made an informal, confidential process available to employees in the 1980s, they found that 90% of those filing sexual harassment complaints preferred that route to the more formal one. Even 40 years later, many employers still lack these types of processes, discount informal reports of harassment or discrimination, or offer few choices for victims looking for resolution.
The lack of anonymity offered by most reporting processes is also an issue. Research has consistently demonstrated that offering anonymous reporting channels increases reporting rates by making it easier for people to report and protecting victims against retaliation. While many companies have some form of anonymous reporting channel, resolution typically requires that employees come forward and expose their identities and themselves to potential retaliation as a result.
Toxic company cultures play a final role in low rates of reporting, with 53% of employees in one study citing hostile work environment as a reason for not reporting. If victims feel that not only is it unlikely that their report will result in a harasser being found responsible, but that their company would also then disregard the finding or shield the harasser from consequences, there is very little chance they’ll choose to report in the first place.
Opaque, legalistic, and inaccessible reporting practices designed to prioritize lowering company risk rather than focusing on resolution and recourse for victims are a major part of the problem. In fact, companies that promote a fairer, flexible, and transparent process for victims may be better equipped to both address deep-seated problems in their workplaces and lower the likelihood that they will be the targets of highly visible discrimination or harassment lawsuits.
If you want to increase reporting rates at your company — and thereby make your workplace a more equitable, inclusive, and safe place to work — here are four practices that you can adopt to rebuild employee trust in reporting.
Demonstrate commitment to accountability from the top.
To build buy-in for any new reporting processes or tools, company leaders must build trust through their words and actions from the start. You can do this by not only making a public commitment to doing better, but by establishing and publicizing metrics to hold yourselves and the company accountable. If your efforts to develop a better process are driven even partially by a mishandling of a discrimination or harassment incident, you should focus on re-earning trust that has been lost. Strongly consider reaching out to any remaining employees who were affected, apologizing for harm done, and offering recourse to the extent possible.
Invest in neutral resources to support victims of harassment and discrimination.
One option is bringing in external resources through a private therapist or Employee Assistance Program (EAP). By giving employees explicit permission to access these services and making it clear that these providers are independent from the company reporting structure, you can provide employees with confidential support, counseling, and advice. While these resources can be expensive, workplace mental health interventions have been shown to have a high return on investment and similar approaches could provide much-needed support to employees facing harassment and discrimination.
Establish an ombuds office.
An ombuds is an off-the-record resource currently used by at least 13% of US companies to provide information and guidance to employees considering reporting. Because they are not an official reporting channel, ombuds can talk candidly to employees about fears and concerns and walk them through the options available to them, including but not limited to making a formal report. Importantly, ombuds serve as an alternative to legalistic hearing processes and allow employees some degree of flexibility in communicating their complaint to the individual(s) accused.
Create anonymous formal reporting channels that both protect reporters and inform organizational change.
A large range of anonymous reporting tools are available to companies, including hotlines, chatbots, website forms, and phone apps. One company in the food industry with a few thousand employees partnered with a third-party platform for their anonymous reporting and found that after 6 months reporting rates had increased by 30%. Faith in the new anonymous channel led employees to come forward earlier with issues that previously may not have been reported for months, if ever, allowing the organization to address problems before they developed into major incidents. While each tool has its own strengths and companies should design their solutions to best fit their own needs, effective solutions (whether fully internal, through an external platform, or a mix of the two) should be:
- Convenient, allowing employees to quickly make and submit reports with the desired level of detail, including witnesses if relevant.
- Transparent, allowing employees to see where a report is going and its status: whether received, reviewed, acted on, or resolved.
- Flexible, allowing employees to indicate the desired resolution to their report, ranging from the ending of unwanted behavior to education for a business unit to termination of the accused employee(s).
- Responsive, allowing employees to anonymously interact with an individual(s) who has their interests in mind throughout the resolution process.
- Independent, allowing employees to report without fear of retaliation or repercussions through a neutral process that preserves anonymity.
- Actionable, allowing employers to respond to reports without compromising the anonymity of reporters. One way to achieve this is by tracking and aggregating details from submitted reports and acting on patterns within that aggregated data.
Leaders who want to take a critical step toward ending discrimination, harassment, microaggressions, and mistreatment in their workplaces need to rethink and redesign the way reporting is done. When employers can successfully prevent retaliation, give victims agency and transparency throughout dispute resolution, and give victims resolution and recourse, they will be able to restore their employees’ trust in reporting.
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