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Measures to Prevent Workplace Harassment: Creating A Reporting System
Measures to Prevent Workplace Harassment: Creating A Reporting System

The next stage in preventing workplace harassment is creating an internal reporting system for instances of harassment and discrimination. They can have a dual purpose of being a prevention measure of sorts-it's something else that communicates the company's stance on harassment and suggests that any instances will be taken seriously-as well as a way to properly address cases of harassment at work. Creating one takes some degree of care, as you want to make sure that it will be easy for employees to use and that it will do what you want it to do.

This article will look at what needs to be done in order to create an effective internal reporting system for workplace harassment. The discussion will include why it is a necessary component to have in your business, what issues may be involved with it, how to get employees to use it, and how the system should be set up. Additional topics will include who should be responsible for managing the system and handling the reports, as well as aspects of confidentiality that should be addressed.

  Why Is It Necessary?

The usage of reporting systems in the workplace for problems has long been something that experts have recommended. As a part of their report on harassment in the workplace, the EEOC highly recommend that business leaders implement reporting systems as a part of their anti-harassment efforts and as a pathway to take action.1 The need to report is heavily stressed, as too many choose not to report out of fear of retaliation or not being taken seriously.2 To be honest, nothing can be done to stop a harasser if their actions are not reported or made known to those who have the authority to stop and punish them.

As mentioned previously, a formalized internal reporting system is another way for businesses to show their employees that they will take all instances seriously. Basically, it's a part of how business leaders and employers can show that they are going to do what they say they are going to do. It's a uniform way that can be used throughout the business, which provides constancy from case to case. As there are also government agencies, like the EEOC, who have their own reporting system, one within the company can serve as a compliment and a stepping stone towards submitting reports to those groups. Not all cases will need to be handled by government agencies or in court, so having the option to handle them within the business can also save everyone some time and distress in an already difficult situation.

  Why Do Employees Not Report Workplace Problems?

There is often more cases of problems like harassment occurring in the workplace than what ends up being reported. Almost too often employers are left unaware of issues happening right under their noses in their business until the problem reaches epic proportions. Then questions as to why no one said anything, despite so many knowing about the situation in some cases, are brought up. Some employees may not even consider reporting issues until things escalate or become severe because they view it as a last resort. There's almost a stigmatism associated with being the person who reports an issue-being a "snitch" or a "narc" sometimes seems worse than the problem itself so it's left alone. The attitudes surrounding reporting are as much of a problem as the issues (not) being reported. So why don't employees report despite understanding the severity of the situation? Some reasons include:

  •          Retaliation-Fear of retaliation is a legitimate concern for those who report workplace problems, harassment-related or otherwise. People don't want to be punished for doing what they thought was the right thing or for standing up for themselves. Fear of being singled out as a target for reporting something is akin to the playground mentality of pointing out tattletales and turning on them, and it makes it so much harder for anything to be done to stop it.3 Concerns about retaliation didn't always suggest that the fear was that the harasser would target the person reporting, but that retaliation would come from other co-workers and management. In some cases, there was concern that the victim would turn on a bystander for reporting harassment, as the victim may be subjected to worsening harassment from their harasser and blame the bystander/reporter.

  •          Poor Understanding-In a 2014 poll regarding reporting sexual harassment at work, four out of five of the respondents stated that they did not report instances, with some of them claiming that they felt it was too minor to be worth the time or that they could handle it on their own.4 This suggests that there isn't a clear understanding of harassment and what counts as a reportable event. There are options available, no matter how minor the harassment may seem, and not everyone seems to realize that. If a person doesn't think reporting is going to do them any good based upon what they know or understand about harassment, then it's not very likely that they will take the time to report.

  •          Problem Source-Sometimes, the reason why a person doesn't report harassment is due to who the harasser is. There are genuine concerns that nothing will be done against someone who has power and authority in a business, such as a supervisor or even the employer. The status of these harassers provide them with some backing and support that their victims might not have access to. In cases where the harassment occurred in a male-dominated workplace and the victim was female, there are aspects of masculine culture that downplays even the severest harassment simply because it's a woman being harassed by her male peer/superior.5 Disparity of power between the harasser and the victim can make reporting seem like a wasteful effort if the harasser has more power.

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in Preventing Workplace Harassment?
  •          Lack of Policies, Resources-Without the proper guidelines and resources, there isn't much that can be done with reporting. Companies that lack the proper information and resources available for employees to report harassment are putting themselves at a serious disadvantage. It's not just there being an outright lack of information-which is totally possible-but there's not enough in place to put what information is there to good use. If it's too complicated or vague, people are not going to know how to use the options they have, or even know that they have options.6

      How To Get Them To Use It

    A business could have the best reporting system in the world for harassment but it does nothing if no one is using it. Getting employees to report cases of harassment is going to be one of the biggest challenges to prevention efforts for many of the reasons already discussed. So how do you convince employees to use the system despite their fears and concerns? Some of the ways that might be helpful include7:

  •          Awareness and Accessibility-You want to make sure that the reporting system and other options are well-known throughout the company. Make the information and the policies regarding harassment explicitly clear to all staff and remind them on occasion. It should not be treated as a secret and the information should be kept in easily accessible places (e.g. employee handbooks). The system itself should also be easily accessible, as it can be discouraging if it's too difficult to use or find. Awareness and accessibility for the reporting system should be brought up when new employees sign on, at regular training or education sessions, when policies are updated, etc.

  •          Commit To It-Leaders of a business should not just create a system and then leave it alone: remember, you want to show that you actually care and that you're just not saying that you do. Commit to your efforts, practice zero-tolerance, enforce policies, get involved in training and educating staff, etc. Have an open door policy with your employees to show that they can come talk to you if they need help and that you can be trusted. Communicate that you care about helping stop workplace harassment with both your words and your actions.

  •          Stress Confidentiality-Part of the reason why people fear retaliation for reporting harassment, or any work problem, is that they are afraid that people will find out. If employees do not feel that their complaint or report will remain confidential to the necessary parties, they won't take the risk of reporting. Stressing confidentiality as a major component of a reporting system, again, shows that the company is taking things seriously and are willing to protect reporters from further abuse. While confidentiality can only go so far-the proper authorities will need to know the details of the situation, and harassers will often realize who reported them based on the details-it should be respected and kept to the highest extent possible.8 This means making sure that the information is need-to-know and only sharing things relevant to the person information is being shared with.

      What Should Be Included?

    A good reporting system should include several elements in order for it to work and for the proper action to be taken in response. If you're putting together one from scratch rather than a commercially available program, then you should consider including some of the following9:

  •          How Are Complaints/Reports Filed?-What channels do employees need to go through in order to file their complaint? Is it in-person, electronically, a form, call-in over the phone, or some other method? You have to decide how reports are going to be filed in order for that information to be made available. There may also be some value in having multiple methods available, so long as they are all officially a part of the system and are treated the same.

  •          What Information Is Needed?-Some businesses require a lot of information for complaints while others want just the main details. Depending on the circumstances, a reporter may not be able to provide a lot of detail (e.g. if the harasser was anonymous) so not all complaints will be very extensive. There will, however, be some that are very extensive because the harassment was extensive. At minimum, a complaint should include who was involved, what happened, and when it happened. A complaint should not be discounted if some of that information isn't included or if it's not very detailed

  •          Who Is Handling Reports?-In addition to deciding on what information and method(s) of reporting is going to be used, you also need to decide on WHO is going to be operating the reporting system. Most businesses and companies regulated it to their HR department, but you can also assign it to specific staff members. If you have a large system for reporting multiple issues (ethics violations, safety, etc.), then you may want to put someone in charge who can handle things effectively.

  •          The Investigation Phase-Usually, the next stage in the reporting system after a complaint has been made is to investigate the claims. This means verifying the information in the complaint, interviewing those involved, and reviewing the relevant information. Occasionally, the business' legal counsel may need to be consulted just to make sure that the investigation is not overstepping any legal bounds and is acting appropriately. Investigators can be someone outside of the company, and there are businesses who offer those services. This keeps things neutral and prevents any favoritism that can cloud the results.

  •          Being Transparent-While you want to keep harassment complaints confidential, there are going to be some people who need to be informed of the circumstances. As mentioned, you want to ensure that only those who need to know are informed as the investigation proceeds and good judgement should be used in regards to private information. Some companies will alert employees to serious instances, but will have a summed-up and simplified version shared that omits personal details about those involved. The person who filed the report, however, should be kept in the loop about every stage of the investigation.

  •          Finding Conclusions and Taking Actions-At the end of the reporting system's progress, a conclusion should be reached. The results of the investigation should be shared with the relevant people (the reporter, victim, harasser, HR, etc.) before formal actions are taken. This ensures that everyone is on the right page before further steps are made and people have time to prepare (e.g. get a lawyer). At this time, any agencies that have not already been notified are contacted as things move towards a resolution.


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