Speaking up about sexual harassment

People are reluctant to talk if they don't trust the organisation, and trust comes from an overall policy and programme of ethics

Whether it's lurid tales in recent weeks from Hollywood and Westminster, or recent research that one in five women have been sexually harassed at work, it’s clear many workplaces still have a problem with inappropriate behaviour.

It’s also apparent that even where procedures are in place victims and witnesses are often unwilling to speak up.

Many organisations now encourage employees to raise concerns through a ‘speak up’ system. Implemented effectively, these can play a key role in revealing business risks and unethical conduct – and, critically, allow the organisation to tackle them before they escalate or reach the public domain. At an HR level they can also deliver outcomes that help improve staff morale, reduce employment tribunals, and lower staff turnover.

But despite many organisations having these systems, many remain under-utilised. This means important issues like sexual harassment often remain hidden.

So what’s stopping employees from speaking out?

The key barrier to reporting, either to a hotline or a manager, is the belief that the discloser will face retaliation, not be taken seriously, their request for anonymity ignored, or that no corrective action will be taken.

These fears are often well-founded. Research from Public Concern at Work found there are frequently disappointing final outcomes for whistleblowers: four out of five report a negative outcome (victimised [29%], dismissed [28%], resigned [24%] or bullied [2%]).

The starting point is trust – and that begins with a healthy organisational culture. People are reluctant to talk if they don't trust the organisation, and trust comes from an overall policy and programme of ethics, with management walking the talk from the top.

An open culture is much more than 'feel free to speak your concerns'. We characterise it as managers having a ‘listen up’ culture to complement the ‘speak up’ message. Senior management need to be seen doing the right thing and taking meaningful measures to prevent retaliation. Managers should also be trained to handle reports correctly – something our research suggests less than 20% of organisations do.

Next, people need to know how to raise their concern, and what will happen when they do. Keeping the programme visible, embedding it into induction and review processes, and actively encouraging speak up reports will ensure people know where to turn.

When it comes to making a report, people must feel reassured that they will be supported, protected, and kept informed. Organisations must do all they can to put their employees’ needs above their own by providing a positive, user-focused experience. This can mean offering a broad range of intake channels (face to face, phone, web, app, etc.) – but it can also mean giving people the freedom to remain anonymous.

Naturally full disclosure makes for a simpler investigation, but few are ready to expose their identity at the outset – particularly with sensitive issues like sexual harassment. The key here is to offer a secure mechanism for ongoing dialogue, which can build trust and encourage the discloser to reveal their identity.

Finally, showing the employee that action is taken, be it investigation or subsequent discipline, is crucial. Employees often weigh the risks of speaking out against previous fruitless experiences or rumoured reports from colleagues that were ‘ignored’.

Even in the current climate reporting sexual harassment is seen as risky. Building a healthy culture, putting the whistleblower's needs first, and showing that their concerns are acted upon will encourage more people to come forward.

John Wilson is the chief executive of whistleblowing hotline Expolink