How can you plan to respond to sexual harassment at your workplace?

The image of an iceberg - where most of the mass hides beneath the surface - is a well worn metaphor, particularly when it comes to describing human behavior. But it’s particularly apt for representing a report of sexual harassment, says Nathan Luker of whistleblowing service provider Your Call.

“When there’s a tip off, or someone makes a whistleblowing report in good faith, we commonly only hear just the tip that's poking out of the water,” he says. But when it comes to responding to incidents of sexual harassment, the organization’s response should take in the whole of the iceberg, which means having the relevant mechanisms in place and dealing with all the complexities of human behaviors and relationships. 

In this article, the fourth in our series on sexual harassment, we’ll look at how organizations can plan to respond to sexual harassment in a comprehensive and sensitive way.

What lies beneath the surface

When someone reports an incident of sexual assault, there’s often a lot more going on than is revealed in the initial report or tip-off. This is the mass of the iceberg, and in the absence of appropriate processes and procedures, it’s left to the individual receiving the report - usually someone in HR - to uncover the full extent of what’s happened and who’s involved.

While some people may have the interpersonal skills to deal with a sensitive report, it leaves the situation very open to biases and other intervening factors, like personal relationships and opinions, which can then dictate the response. 

“To give an example, an HR Manager receives a complaint against Person A. They immediately think ‘I know Person A, there's no way that he could do that. I'm just going to take him out for a coffee and ask him about it myself, tell him to stop and be careful with what he’s doing’,” says Luker. “Then they think they’ve solved it, but the informal approach isn't always the best. In fact, it’s usually not because it may not follow procedural fairness.”

Robust policies and procedures, together with commitment from leaders, help mitigate these factors and protect all parties involved, including the rights of the victim, but also the wider organization.

The elements of a good speak up framework

“Generally, people are happy to speak up internally if they trust the system, the leaders are doing the right thing and policies and procedures that provide protection and support are in place,” says Luker.

So what should organizations put in place to be ready for when a report is made?

Your Call recommends that organizations be guided by two key principles:

  • Offering team members effective, unbiased and anonymous reporting pathways
  • Protecting the commercial and reputational interests of the organization

As for the practical steps that should be taken to make sure an organization is ready to deal with a report, Your Call has put together a comprehensive checklist based on leading Australian research into whistleblowing.

Key elements include:

  • Clear expressions of organizational commitment to support speaking up
  • Clear and multiple reporting channels
  • Effective and confidential investigation methods
  • Available support and protections for people who make reports
  • Effective review practices to track received reports as lead indicators 

Having a robust framework in place is, of course, only effective when supported by the organization’s culture. While the wider culture provides the foundation, there also needs to be tangible evidence of the organization’s commitment to these expectations. This includes putting sufficient resources behind the framework, spelling out clear responsibilities and embedding them in performance expectations.

The sunlight test

Recent media coverage has shown the scrutiny that can come to bear on organizations who do the wrong thing. Even with a strong reporting framework backed up by a supportive culture and appropriate PR, Luker says it’s inevitable wrongdoing will occur at an organization at some stage. When it does happen, it’s the way wrongdoing is recognized and dealt with that matters.

“Preparation and prevention is the best medicine,” says Luker, “but once wrongdoing is detected, the process a business follows must be able to stand up to public scrutiny to prove it’s taken the right steps. They need to consider whether their approach would pass the sunlight test: if everyone found out about this or if we ended up on the front page of the newspaper, how would we feel about our actions?"

In our next post in this series, we’ll discuss the red flags experts look out for that can signal all is not culturally well at an organization.

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