Claire Schmidt is CEO and founder of AllVoices. Views are the authors' own.
We’re hearing more about harassment in the workplace these days than it seems ever before, even as companies move to remote environments. But does this mean that harassment has increased? Not necessarily. It likely means that harassment issues aren't being tolerated like they were in the past.
In recent years, employees have started seeing harassment for what it is, and how pervasive and damaging it can be — and they realize they don’t have to tolerate it any more. Before public platforms like social media, employees were left with little recourse to unresolved or ignored issues: keep quiet and deal with it, or find another job. Today, though, employees who aren’t seeing resolutions, or who have been retaliated against, or who weren’t believed, can expose what’s really going on behind those closed doors of their organization.
We’ve seen it play out in the news cycle, starting with Susan Fowler’s blog post alleging she experienced retaliation for reporting issues at Uber. Just recently, employees at Google and Amazon have raised allegations of discrimination and harassment, and Apple employees started a website to surface harassment, racism and other claims.
Technology and the easy accessibility to a public forum has shifted the authority to the employees, and companies can no longer keep things hidden or covered up — which means they have to take action on resolving these issues when they surface.
Refocus the attention
This focusing of attention on employee voices is really a focus on employee needs. Employees need ways to raise the issues they see around them without fear of losing job duties, or their job. Then once they have a way of raising those issues, they need them to be resolved by the organization. This refocusing of needs is prompting a conversation around what tools and resources organizations should provide that can surface truly honest feedback. Or, do they need to revamp their tools to provide channels that employees will actually use?
It's also forcing organizations to take a deeper, honest look at culture as well, and to start questioning whether it's a healthy one for all of their employees — not just some. Organizations are, more and more, recognizing the need for better feedback programs, and ways to make employees feel more psychologically safe.
At its foundation, the #MeToo movement showed us that issues of harassment were more widespread than many people probably thought, and that they have been going on for a long time. But what the #MeToo movement also revealed was that there are many individuals who have experienced harassment who have essentially suffered in silence: They haven't spoken up for various reasons, the largest being a fear of retaliation. Or their issue wasn't fully resolved and they didn't know what to do. Or they just weren't believed. But it was only when enough voices started speaking up that other voices felt they could break their silence and speak up too. #MeToo didn't just show us that long-pervasive harassment had been an ongoing problem that was now seeing the light, but that there are thousands — probably millions — of individuals who stay silent.
And one might think that harassment would decrease or even stop if employees were working remotely, because there's a sense of proximity and presence needed for harassment to happen. But that's not the case: In our recent survey on the State of Workplace Harassment, we found that 38% of employees said they still experience harassment remotely. This is through channels such as email, video conferencing, chat apps or by phone. Twenty-four percent of employees also see harassment as being made worse through remote channels.
A New York Times article details that this is due to "the air of informality around workplace communication" that’s shifted to virtual, the fact that "knowing that no one’s watching can embolden foul play," and the challenge of "pandemic-imposed stress" that’s made some individuals more quick to anger.
So, how do organizations manage a hybrid workforce, stop the culture of silence and foster speaking up?
Take action to end harassment
Our research has found that individuals who have experienced harassment don't speak up because of a fear of retaliation. This could be in the form of being shunned by the team, being shamed at the office or gossiped about, losing out on job opportunities or even being forced out of their organization altogether. In our findings, the top reason workers didn’t report was because of fear of retaliation. A study by the National Women’s Law Center also found that more than 70% of workers who reported harassment faced retaliation for it.
While there are still individuals who may never feel comfortable speaking up, the tools given to employees, and the importance communicated around those tools, can do a lot to encourage or hinder reporting. For example, what if a workplace has an "open door policy" and encourages employees to drop in to HR with their concerns — yet the door is literally or figuratively never open? What if an organization wants employees to report issues directly to their manager — but the manager is the harasser? What if an organization promises 100% anonymity on a survey designed to surface issues in the workplace — but then sends you an email reminder because their records show you haven't completed it yet? Organizations can very well say that they're making the tools and resources available to their employees to report, yet still be failing to gather honest feedback.
Organizations that value efforts to surface issues have to listen to what employees say they need: a culture that normalizes reporting.
That requires offering anonymous reporting channels, ensuring that those who speak up do not suffer retaliation and resolving reports when they come in. That’s how to change the workplace culture for the better and truly make harassment a thing of the past.