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How to respond to sexual harassment at work

Kate Le Gallez

Writer, Culture Amp

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, we’ll look at how organizations can plan to respond to sexual harassment in a comprehensive and sensitive way.

What lies beneath the surface of sexual harassment

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 Nathan. “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 Nathan.

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 supporting 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: Preparing to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace

Recent media coverage has shown the scrutiny that can come to bear on organizations that do the wrong thing. Even with a strong reporting framework backed up by a supportive culture and appropriate PR, Nathan says its 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 Nathan, “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?"

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