Apps Bypass HR to Send Harassment Reports Directly to Senior Leaders

Executives may get a sense of problems in the workplace, but without HR guidance, will they know what to do about them?

By Dave Zielinski February 12, 2018
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​Despite the recent wave of high-profile men being fired from jobs because of sexual harassment charges, and growing public support for survivors, many women in the workplace remain hesitant to bring harassment claims against co-workers, fearing being retaliated against or even being fired themselves. A group of female executives aims to change that with a new Web platform that allows employees to anonymously report instances of sexual harassment at work. The platform, AllVoices, is among new online tools designed to take the time-honored harassment hotline to another level.

The platform provides a structured questionnaire to help employees recognize harassment and then anonymously report it. The system requires a phone number from employees for verification, and that data is encrypted to preserve anonymity, according to a report from CNN. Complaint data generated by AllVoices is aggregated and sent directly to an organization's CEO and board of directors, with dashboards designed to track reporting trends over time.

Claire Schmidt, a former vice president at film studio 20th Century Fox, is the driving force behind AllVoices. The idea, she said, is to encourage senior executives to begin tracking culture metrics—including claims of harassment or discrimination—in the same manner they track financial or marketing measures.

Among Schmidt's advisors on the platform are Susan Fowler, the former Uber employee whose whistle-blowing helped trigger an investigation into a climate of sexual harassment at that company, and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist, a talent marketplace for female leaders. Schmidt, who experienced sexual assault herself, said in a blog post that employees still feel that reporting harassment can come at significant cost to their careers. She hopes a new way to provide feedback via a direct communication channel to top leaders will help create increased transparency and accountability in organizations.

Tools like AllVoices provide a third option to those who don't want to pursue lawsuits or whose accused perpetrators aren't well-known enough to warrant press coverage. "I am driven by my desire to create 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," Schmidt wrote in her blog post.

Rise of Digital Reporting Tools

Other tools such as STOPit, tEQitable and Callisto have emerged in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimeIsUp movements. They use the latest technologies to capture anonymous reports and to provide sexual harassment education.

"Many people, especially women, are reluctant to report sexual harassment even after what's happened of late because of the fear of retaliation or embarrassment that can be attached to it," said Jennifer Robinson, an employment attorney and managing shareholder with Littler in Nashville, Tenn. "Platforms like AllVoices appear to solicit more-specific information from accusers than a standard harassment hotline might, which can help in avoiding the vague complaints you can receive on anonymous hotlines."

Robinson said sending aggregated complaint data to the C-suite can help raise consciousness about the severity of harassment problems and improve the odds of top leaders taking action. 

"There might be a large number of reports about certain individuals in an organization that senior leaders simply can't ignore, given the threat to their business," she said.

But Robinson did question the value of sending these reports directly to the top instead of to human resources. 

"Those at the C-level who aren't trained HR professionals may not think something needs to be investigated when HR could tell you that indeed it does," she said. Another issue is how senior executives will weigh ethical concerns against financial considerations when reviewing complaint data. "What if they investigate and find it's their top salesperson who's repeatedly been accused of some form of harassment?" Robinson said.

Patti Perez, a vice president and sexual harassment prevention expert with Emtrain in San Diego, also has concerns about bypassing HR in reporting harassment complaint data. 

"[Executives] will probably need to send the data back to HR at some point anyway, to say we need to look at trends and figure out what's happening," said Perez, who helps clients build effective harassment complaint and investigation systems. "There also is the question of whether the C-suite or board is well-equipped, or even has the time, to review the data. While reporting directly to them can help elevate the importance of the harassment issue, I'm not sure these types of anonymous reporting platforms address the underlying issues behind the problem."

There also are legal issues to consider in using such platforms. "Once a complaint is filed, the company is theoretically on notice of an anonymous complaint and may have a duty to investigate," Robinson said. Companies and HR leaders then have to figure out the proper way to investigate when accusers are anonymous, she said.

Web platforms or apps that encourage anonymous complaints also have the potential to produce false or petty claims in addition to genuine ones, Robinson said. "One of my concerns about anonymity is it becomes easier for people to claim whatever they want, whether it is true or not."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.

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