In order to prevent harassment, we have to start by addressing retaliation, according to a seminal Stanford Law Journal symposium in 2018. This is a lesson that is especially relevant today, with high profile instances of harassment and discrimination in the news. While there are many shocking twists and turns in the viral Google memo that surfaced last month, perhaps the most pernicious pattern outlined in the memo was the retaliation the employee faced for speaking up. The anonymous Google employee explained how, after she reported her manager for making discriminatory statements about a colleague, she faced “vetoed projects,” and “public shaming,” and ultimately, her complaints “sent [her] down a path that destroyed [her] career trajectory at Google.”
Her experience echoes a wider pattern: far too often, employees face career setbacks when they report misdeeds. In the most widely cited study, 75% of employees faced retaliation when they reported workplace mistreatment. Many experts have suggested that the way to correct this is to increase bystander reporting. But, as the Google memo shows, even bystanders can be penalized.
So how can we give employees a safe channel to speak up? How can we provide them with a way to air their concerns, understand their rights, and initiate an investigation without risking their career? Two years ago, I launched a company dedicated to doing just this: providing a way for all voices to be heard. And what I’ve learned, after implementing our system at 35 companies, is that there are structural ways to reduce the risk of retaliation.
First, employees must have an anonymous channel through which they can communicate with HR. Anonymity is crucial, because it allows people to speak up without risking their career. But just having an anonymous tip-line isn’t enough, as the Google example shows. An anonymous reporting tool must be robust enough that employees feel confident that their complaints will be heard. And it must enable secure two-way conversations, so that employees can understand their options before they launch a formal complaint, and HR can gather the information it needs to begin an investigation. We stress to our users that an anonymous complaint should be just the beginning of the process, not the end.
Too often, people don’t speak up because they are afraid that the particulars of their complaint will make it easy for the accused to retaliate, even if they use anonymous channels. That’s why we’ve developed a system to ask structured questions about the type of issue that an employee would like to report. Employees can raise an alarm without necessarily having to disclose every detail of their situation. And by collecting enterprise-wide data, it is easier to see trends, and to address systemic issues proactively, on a broader scale.
Finally, we’ve found that it is crucial to engage executives and the board in the effort to address toxic workplace culture. Too often, as Caitlin Flanagan argued in the Atlantic, “HR serves as the first line of defense against a sexual-harassment lawsuit,” rather than an effective means to prevent harassment and retaliation. In my own work with HR teams, I’ve encountered many dedicated professionals who are truly devoted to the well-being of employees. But too often, these teams don’t feel empowered to address broader patterns of workplace dysfunction, even though dysfunction has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. By providing executives with a direct line of sight into problems and data supporting the need to take action, leadership is better able to proactively address these issues at scale.
Ultimately, we can’t prevent harassment and other workplace issues until we make it safe for people to speak up. The first step is to end retaliation so that it’s safe for people to come forward with complaints.