Social media figures prominently in the flood of sexual harassment allegations swamping high-profile political, news, entertainment and tech industry figures—playing a role that employers would be wise to heed.
As blogs and social media platforms expose and amplify employee complaints, HR faces a new frontier—one where some forums, like mobile app Blind, even encourage workers to post company complaints anonymously.
"Social media is another way employees complain about harassing behavior. Social media is involved in some aspect of each harassment complaint I've dealt with recently, whether it is the source of the report itself or if it contradicts the employee's claim," said HR consultant Kate Bischoff, who runs tHRive Law & Consulting.
"And social media is not going anywhere. It's now a facet of doing business," the Minneapolis employment attorney said.
After more than a year of high-profile sexual harassment scandals, accusers unleashed a raft of severe allegations this fall against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, prompting Weinstein's firing from his own company and a deluge of accusations against powerful figures from Hollywood to Washington, D.C.
The latest: On Dec. 5, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., announced his resignation, effective immediately, following multiple harassment allegations. That move came exactly two months after The New York Times triggered a tsunami of allegations with a story detailing a long trail of accusations against Weinstein.
"You don't have to monitor social media, but we need to encourage employees to bring things to us, whether it is a co-worker's post or their own report of harassment."
Weinstein's accusers and their supporters filled social media with stories about the producer, stirring a wave of #MeToo social media posts from women and men from various walks of life who shared their own experiences with alleged sexual predators.
"The #MeToo campaign has resulted in several of my clients investigating possible harassment claims. In each of these situations, my clients were made aware that a post was made that could have involved inappropriate conduct while the poster was employed and could have involved a co-worker. So, they all investigated," said Bischoff. "Some took action and some learned that the post did not involve them."
While the viral nature and swift story arc of recent sexual harassment scandals have played out on Twitter, and Facebook has served as a diary for many sharing their own stories, employees also have access to workplace-focused platforms that allow them to publicize all manner of complaints.
Blind Sheds Light on Accusations
The Blind app bills itself as "your anonymous workplace community," with "real insight from your peers." The company says its mission is "to flatten professional barriers and bring transparency to the workplace." People register on the app with their work e-mail addresses and can share anonymously with others. They can also conduct polls. Blind says it values what is said over who says it and that it wants to empower everyone in the workplace. "Transparency results in voice, and voice results in change, often for the better," its website states.
Job board and employee forum Glassdoor, meanwhile, provides a searchable database of anonymous employee reviews.
And a new platform coming soon, AllVoices, says it will allow any employee to anonymously report "instances of harassment, discrimination, or bias, either witnessed or experienced firsthand, directly to their CEO and company board," with aggregated reports delivered to the CEO and board without any personally identifiable information.
[SHRM members-only resource: Sexual Harassment Policy and Complaint/Investigation Procedure]
Platforms like Blind and Glassdoor are the 2017 versions of a whistle-blower hotline, said Jacquelyn Thorp, SHRM-SCP, California HR coach and CEO of Train Me Today. "Using anonymous sources for reporting bad behavior at work is difficult. You don't always get the information you need to investigate, and there is no one to follow up with," Thorp told SHRM Online.
"However, in today's workplace there is a place for [anonymous sources] because employees feel they have nowhere to turn. This is why it is so critical for employers to train their employees about their sexual harassment prevention policy and process if they feel harassed, discriminated against or bullied," she said.
Thorp recently wrote about steps employers can take to develop a harassment-free workplace, including instituting a zero-tolerance policy, ensuring full support of top management and the board, training, proper investigations, good enforcement, expert HR people, and a respectful culture. SHRM Online, too, has developed a workplace harassment portal complete with case studies, tools and advice on how to conduct trainings and investigations.
Anonymous Accusations Can’t Facilitate Change
The problem with employees anonymously using social media platforms to report harassment is that the posts need to be directed to someone empowered to investigate and take action, according to David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Conn., HR consulting and outsourcing firm. While more people may come forward if they can speak out anonymously, he said, investigators must know who is complaining to do their jobs.
"Just having the app available for use is not enough. Further, anonymous complaints rarely give HR, or the empowered party, enough to act on," Lewis said. Best practices call for an investigation that includes interviews with the accuser and witnesses, he said. "A system where all [or] much of what is collected is anonymous makes this challenging at best."
If the employee's goal is to get the word out that the environment at a company is toxic, then these platforms that allow employees to vent work well, Lewis said, "but having all of this facilitate real change is a slower process."
Lewis defended the HR profession against the criticism it has received amid the scandals.
"HR is getting crushed right now as being culpable in organizations where harassment was allowed to continue. HR examines issues, draws conclusions, recommends actions and reactions, and then 100 percent operates at the direction of leadership. As such, I take exception to those who point fingers at HR and assume all or most are in management's corner," Lewis said.
Don’t Be Blind: Investigate Harassment Apps
Bischoff recommends that HR teams review the information posted on forums like Blind, Bravely, Knunu, Fairygodboss, and Glassdoor, while encouraging workers to report problems in-house.
"Whether it is reputational information or reports of harassment, these are now additional sources of employee concerns. We have to listen to them. If the post is made anonymously, we still have an obligation to do something about it, even if that means we have to investigate. We in HR and employers more generally can't afford to put our fingers in our ears and wait for a more formal, direct complaint," Bischoff said.
"Employers have to keep a keen eye on what is happening in their workplace, be vigilant, [and trust] that employees will bring them reports of harassment," Bischoff said. "You don't have to monitor social media, but we need to encourage employees to bring things to us, whether it is a co-worker's post or their own report of harassment."
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer covering HR, entrepreneurship, small business, personal finance and health care.
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