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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: The Anonymous Complaint Process

July 05, 2018 Abimael “AJ” Bastida

As the number of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace continue to grow across professions, socio-economic classes, and cultures, employers frequently ask whether an anonymous complaint reporting process for employees is necessary.

The Employer’s Responsibility

It can be understandably daunting for an employee to report any form of discrimination or misconduct in the workplace, especially when the employee is complaining about his or her superior.  While employers have made great strides in better addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, the fear of retaliation for speaking up persists among many employees.  However, the law requires that employers provide a safe and hostile-free work environment for their employees.  Therefore, the responsibility falls on the employer to establish an internal reporting procedure that will encourage employees to report misconduct without the fear of retaliation.     

Anonymity

Employees may be intimidated to report situations of misconduct in the workplace; an ideal internal reporting procedure should allow employees to bring forth complaints confidentially and anonymously.  This protects the identity of the victims and witnesses, and encourages employees to report situations early—before things get out of hand.  Even if the identities are learned during the investigation process, the employer should have policies in place to protect these identities and limit disclosure to an as-needed basis.  This can be challenging in smaller companies with few employees, but it is important.

Working With What You Have

Because of the anonymity of these complaints, the employer can only work with the information provided.  Therefore, it is important to distinguish between vague anonymous complaints, e.g., general objections or claims of dissatisfaction (“this job sucks”) and factual anonymous complaints that provide factual details and specific allegations of misconduct.  One rule of thumb in handling anonymous complaints is to determine whether the allegations in the anonymous complaint would constitute serious wrongdoing or unlawful conduct if true.  However, always err on the side of caution and investigate potentially serious allegations.

Be Careful With Technology

Recently, the tech industry has inserted itself into this already delicate situation.  There are employers who allow employees to make anonymous reports of misconduct in the workplace via third-party mobile applications.  While this may facilitate the process in an age where we seem to want to do everything on our mobile devices, there are implications to be considered.  By bringing in an external third party into what was an internal process, employers must ask themselves: Who owns the information and data these mobile applications collect?  Does the employer have unrestricted access to this information?  How can the mobile application company use this information?  These questions have yet to be answered.  For now, it might be best to take a wait-and-see approach to technology.

Sexual harassment is an evolving issue.  Therefore, the way in which employers handle sexual harassment complaints in the workplace must also evolve but it must be thoughtful and effective.