Harassment, HR Policies & Procedures

Does Your Harassment Complaint Model Need Updating?

With almost daily allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and misconduct hitting the news, many are reconsidering their own methods of handling such complaints and allegations.

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Many of the claims that have hit the media have been raised years or, in some cases, decades after the harassment allegedly occurred. Why have the victims, both men and women, waited so long to come forward? Many have explained that they were afraid that coming forward would end their career. By remaining silent, the victims internalized the harm, and in some cases, they continued to endure further harassment by the perpetrators. The silence also enabled the perpetrators to seek new victims.

How do we eliminate the fear of retaliation that deters victims of harassment and discrimination from coming forward immediately? For starters, perhaps we should examine common complaint mechanisms in standard antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies. Most complaint mechanisms are multitiered, meaning the victim is told to complain to her immediate supervisor, HR (especially if her supervisor is the perpetrator), or a management official. Many handbooks include “open-door” statements that essentially invite employees to stop by an executive’s office at any time to talk about anything, including allegations of harassment or discrimination.

However, standard policies may not eliminate the fear of retaliation, even though most of them expressly prohibit retaliation. Perhaps we should think about incorporating an anonymous reporting option into complaint procedures. Of course, some employers already allow anonymous reporting, but it’s far from universal.

Anonymous reporting certainly is not ideal. For one thing, without knowing the identity of the complaining party, it’s much more difficult for HR to investigate a complaint. If HR can’t complete a thorough investigation (which normally includes interviewing the complaining party), it may be hindered in its ability to reach a reasoned conclusion, take remedial action against the perpetrator (if necessary), and prevent future occurrences.

Despite the flaws inherent in anonymous reporting, many believe that an anonymous complaint is better than no complaint at all. That belief has given birth to a soon-to-be-launched website called AllVoices. Created by Claire Schmidt, a former technology executive at 20th Century Fox, AllVoices will provide an avenue for employees to bypass HR and anonymously report harassment and discrimination directly to CEOs and corporate boards of directors.

AllVoices will aggregate reports of harassment and discrimination by company, deliver the complaints to each company without providing personally identifiable information, and advise the complaining party when the company has received the report and whether the company has taken action. Schmidt describes AllVoices as “a safe place for people to report what they’ve experienced without having to come forward publicly, risk their jobs or reputations, or fear retaliation.”

Only time will tell whether AllVoices succeeds in achieving its goals. In the meantime, it would be prudent to review your antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies to ensure that employees are not deterred from bringing complaints forward immediately.

Andy Rodman is a shareholder and director in the Miami office of Stearns Weaver Miller. If you have a question or issue that you would like him to address, e-mail arodman@stearnsweaver.com or call 305-789-3255. Your identity will not be disclosed in any response. This column isn’t intended to provide legal advice. Answers to personnel-related inquiries are highly fact-dependent and often vary state by state, so you should consult with employment law counsel before making personnel decisions.