The Right Process Can Reduce Sexual Harassment

May 22, 2018 | HR Acuity | HCI
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The Right Policy Process Can Reduce Sexual Harassment

Despite the heightened activity and conversation about #MeToo, reducing incidents of workplace sexual harassment will take time. Nearly 75 percent of people harassed in the workplace don’t report it. To effect positive change, organizations need to figure out how to get more women (and men) to come forward when issues arise.

Recent news articles about what HR got wrong focus on establishing multiple reporting paths and enhancing training. Both are important, but neither gets to the heart of the matter: Why are women reluctant to step forward? 

In 1995 (it’s not a new phenomenon!), researchers asked women why they didn’t report incidences of harassment or inappropriate behavior.1 The primary response: fear — fear of not knowing what would happen. Not knowing how the person they reported the incident to would respond. Not knowing what would be expected of them, how often they would have to relive what occurred, or if their actions would be questioned. Not knowing if they would face retaliation or if reporting the incident would help — or make it worse. 

With so many unknowns and emotional elements in play, it’s no wonder so many victims prefer the less risky route of simply keeping quiet.

To upend that paradigm, organizations must implement change beyond the usual HR “go-tos” of decades past: hotlines, policies, and training. Organizations must adopt processes to help mitigate the fear of coming forward by providing greater transparency for and building trust with employees. How? By reworking the investigation process.  

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Establish a required investigation process. Only 33 percent of organizations have required processes for conducting investigations. Lack of required processes means lack of consistency. To ensure that investigations are fair, accurate, transparent, and thorough, you need standardized, required processes that enable collaboration, provide appropriate confidentiality and accessibility, and secure the right data every time. These processes build confidence and trust that when employees report issues, they will be addressed fairly. 
  2. Communicate expectations before something happens. While most anti-harassment policies state that an investigation will take place, that means little — and can sound intimidating — to someone new to the process. Get more specific. In a recent article, I shared what employees should expect if they make a claim. Create your own version, review as part of your training, and publish with your policy.
  3. Incorporate clear interview protocols. Investigation interviews can be nerve-racking — and scary — even for employees who’ve done nothing wrong. During an investigation, have all investigators use consistent, standard protocols. This Interview Protocols Checklist ensures clear expectations regarding what employees should expect from the process (reinforcing No. 2) and what your organization expects from them. Include critical topics, such as your non-retaliation policy and privacy expectations. This communication shows employees that your organization takes harassment seriously. 
  4. Be more transparent about your actions. Standard investigatory practice is to share relatively little with the complaining party. A common communication: “We substantiated your allegation and have taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Even if your organization is doing everything right, this lack of transparency may raise doubt that anything is being done. Consider a different response: “We substantiated your allegation; Rob will receive training and has been given a written warning.” The complaining party will appreciate your candor and feel more confident that the inappropriate behaviors will stop. Although Rob might not be happy that you shared that information, he may think twice about violating a policy again.
  5. Trust but verify. Investigation files are often only reviewed when something goes wrong. Commit to auditing your team’s investigation files at least semiannually to ensure that people are following procedures, uncover gaps in the process, or identify training needs. The HR Acuity Investigation Case File Review is an easy tool to ensure quality and comprehensive investigations in your organization.  
  6. Ask for feedback. After the investigation, survey the person who reported the issue.  Ask for three ratings: (1) I was treated with dignity and respect; (2) the organization took my concern seriously; and (3) my issue was handled with discretion. You can even ask for a “net promoter” rating (i.e., I am likely to recommend that a co-worker report an issue).

So before you scramble to draft new policies and implement new anti-harassment programs, take a moment and reflect on how your employees will experience them. Think carefully about how to design your processes to serve your ultimate goal of uncovering and addressing sexual harassment.


1 Louise F. Fitzgerald and Suzanne Swan, University of Illinois at Urbana — Champaign; Karla Fischer, Duke University. Why Didn’t She Just Report Him? The Psychological and Legal Implications of Women’s Responses to Sexual Harassment.