The United States Department of Justice highlights a chilling statistic: one out of every four female undergraduates will be victim to some form of sexual assault before graduation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that at least 95% of campus rapes in the U.S. go unreported. This statistic reflects a dire need for increased campus prevention and support systems at our nation’s colleges and universities.
In a world where the number of sexual harassment cases that go unreported is alarmingly high, any system that can encourage people to report workplace harassment has got be to good, right?
Yes, and no. Not all solutions are created equal. Processes that are difficult to use, uncomfortable, or unknown aren’t going to help your company improve its culture. And while some solutions may encourage people to report who wouldn’t normally – like how an anonymous hotline may encourage a bystander who fears retaliation to report – they may not be the best solution for your company long term.
As an employee, and company sometimes, an anonymous hotline can seem like the perfect solution. There is no fear of retaliation for reporting – because higher-ups can’t know who filed the report ; there is no fear of getting dragged into a long investigative process; and it can be a lot less difficult than talking face-to-face with a manager or HR team member. For employers, it checks the box of having a reporting tool in place and perhaps keeping them from being liable in a harassment lawsuit.
But, before your company goes all in on anonymous reporting tools as the way of the future, consider what some HR professionals and the research say about these tools. Not all are fans.
“As an HR Professional, anonymous tips from a hotline or a note under my door rarely provide enough information on which to act. Plus, I simply cannot take the word of an anonymous source. I may need to ask follow-up questions. I need to know if there were any witnesses,” said one HR professional and Bevoco co-founder. “I want to know the ‘who, what, when, where and why’ of the story. Granted, there are times when an anonymous tip is helpful, and it can certainly supplement a company’s efforts to be compliant when it comes to embezzlement, fraud, ethics violations, HIPAA, etc., but the very best way to get to the truth is to go to the source and ask questions.”
An article from HR Executive News agrees. While anonymous tools can help, the article argues, they may not really get enough information to do anything about the incident, making it difficult for employers to investigate it further.
“Oftentimes, they may not get enough information to do a proper investigation, which has the potential to let the person continue committing the behavior. While it may be cathartic for the person who endured the sexual harassment, it limits the employer’s ability to remedy the situation.”
And, if the employer can’t do anything to rectify the harassment, then the tool isn’t effective for your workplace. In a New York Times article about workplace harassment at Fox News, they talked with several employees about Fox’s anonymous reporting hotline. One interviewee, Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer representing three women who are suing Fox News and its corporate parent, said whether or not the reporting tool is anonymous doesn’t matter, it’s about what happens after that can encourage employees to report incidents or not.
“Employees tend to come forward when they feel that their company is going to handle their complaints fairly and responsibly, whether or not the hotline is anonymous, Wigdor said. “Where it’s clear based on prior conduct, messaging, how you treat employees when they come forward to make a complaint — that they’re not going to be retaliated against, that it’s taken seriously, I don’t see a need for a hotline.”
Many employees may feel an anonymous hotline can help stop retaliation, however several people from the Times article said that often these hotlines aren’t as anonymous as employees think. From the article: “They are usually run by third-party vendors, who assign a number to a case, and ask for a method to get back to you. Unsophisticated people will provide the company an email and will frequently become the subject of investigation themselves.
“Worse, the veneer of anonymity can perversely make retaliation by the employer easier: Companies can claim they could not possibly have retaliated because they did not know the identity of the tipster, when in fact they did. “If you suffer retaliation, you’re not able to say, ‘The reason I was demoted, sent to Siberia, is because I reported this. The company can say, ‘Hey, it was anonymous, we had no idea.’
“On the other hand, companies often think twice about retaliating against someone who has come forward while using their name because the retaliation is easier to demonstrate.”