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How to Create a Safe Workplace For All in the Post-MeToo era Reports of harassment are on the rise, but organizations may not be doing enough to identify and manage this risk properly

By Ingrid Fredeen

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Almost 18 months have passed since the start of the #MeToo era, sparking both women and men to voice their concerns about sexual harassment. Organizations of all sizes, and in all industries, have felt the impact of this powerful movement.

And now, we're starting to see an impact in the harassment numbers. From 2016 to the end of 2018, employee reports of harassment through internal reporting mechanisms, such as hotlines, increased more than 18 per cent, according to new research.

The reality is that around the globe, workplace misconduct (abusive behaviors, harassment and discrimination) persists. In a study published in The New York Times, one in three men says that they have "… done something at work within the past year that would qualify as objectionable behavior or sexual harassment," and more than one in four employees observed conduct that was either abusive, discriminatory, or harassing, according to a survey by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative. That survey also found that only 30 per cent of employees exposed to sexual harassment will actually report it to their employer.

Disconnected Employers

Despite the increase in harassment reports, one in 5 of internal professionals closest to the problem (HR, Compliance, Legal) says they've seen a meaningful jump in harassment claims.

This dichotomy tells an important story that employers should be watching. Reports of harassment are on the rise, but organizations may not be doing enough to identify and manage this risk properly. Some employers may even be dreading the next harassment complaint report because they know their internal "system" for handling it is inadequate.

Of course, this doesn't make the problem go away. It actually makes it worse.

A Lesson in Reporting

So why aren't reporting numbers higher? What keeps employees from speaking up internally? There are many reasons—from a lack of awareness about a company hotline to fear that the issue won't be taken seriously or, worse yet, that they won't be believed.

A recent exchange with a colleague, who is an employment attorney, put this issue in stark relief. He shared his objection to teaching employees about speaking up and further objected to teaching them to bring reports without solid evidence of harassment. His biggest concern was that women would make false reports. All of this thinking came from a place of distrust. Employees who work for his organization almost certainly know that reporting puts their integrity and credibility on trial. And if that is the case, why risk coming forward?

Unfortunately, this attorney's viewpoint isn't an oddity. Male executives at the World Economic Forum annual meeting expressed a general fear that men could be falsely accused which has led some to simply avoid women altogether. This discriminatory sentiment, sometimes referred to as the Pence rule, is alive and kicking.

Trust Issues

Reporting requires trust; that the employer will do the right thing following a report. Building or repairing trust takes time, effort and positive results, and reports of misconduct should actually be seen as a good thing, not bad.

New research from George Washington University in the US found that active internal reporting systems, that is, reports made to hotlines, websites or face-to-face, are signs of high trust and transparency. The researchers also found that hotline usage is associated with greater profitability and workforce productivity, fewer material lawsuits brought against the company and lower settlements when lawsuits do occur, and fewer external whistleblower reports to regulatory agencies. Put another way: Robust use of a reporting system is a sign of employees looking out for themselves, each other and the company brand all at once.

Gauging that trust is important, which is where internal surveys can be helpful. The survey should be anonymous and secure. Ask:

  • Whether they have experienced, or otherwise witnessed abusive conduct, discrimination or harassment;
  • What level was the employee who engaged in the misconduct;
  • Whether they reported the misconduct;
  • How did they feel about the reporting process and the ultimate result;
  • If they did not report, why didn't they.

It's also important to benchmark your numbers. For many organizations, that threshold is pretty low. The goal should be to improve reporting numbers each year.

Asking these questions requires your organization's leadership to listen, assess, take action, and be more transparent. All positives when it comes to creating a healthy workplace culture.

So when that next report comes in, embrace it. It's your opportunity to learn more about what is going on in your organization and uncover potential misconduct that is undermining your culture. If you don't, your employees have other options in today's hyper-connected, social media-driven world. If the problem is serious enough and goes unaddressed, it won't stay hidden for long.

Ingrid Fredeen

Vice President (Online Learning Content)


Ingrid has been specializing in ethics and legal compliance training for more than ten years. She has been the principal design and content developer for NAVEX Global’s online training course initiatives utilizing her more than 20 years of specialization in employment law and legal compliance. Prior to joining NAVEX Global, Ingrid worked both as a litigator with Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest employment law firm, and as in-house corporate counsel for General Mills, Inc. a premier Fortune 500 food manufacturing company.


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