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  • Writer's pictureBobbi K Dominick

Encouraging the Elbow to Report Harassment

According to Business Management Daily, looking at recent high profile sexual harassment claims, only 25% were reported to internal HR. Other studies have the percentage reporting internally even lower, at 15-20%.

This is consistent with what we already knew, most complaints are unreported. We must encourage reporting more forcefully!  How do we do that?  Trust. Culture.

Did you see the TIME Magazine report of the Person of the Year?  Did you notice the cover of the Magazine?  It had five women, some sitting, some standing, all dressed in black.  All of the women were prominent in bringing those high profile harassment cases to light recently, or starting the #MeToo movement.  Many of the faces were recognizable.  Famous women.  Women that we "know." 

But did you notice the sixth woman on the cover? 

If you just saw the cover and did not read the article you may not have noticed her.  The sixth woman was visible only in the far right corner. 

Only her elbow was showing, also dressed in black.  She was not visibly shown or identified, because she had not yet reported her harassment, and was fearful of retaliation or backlash from her employer, co-workers, small town, or more. 

What we know from statistics like those cited in the first paragraph is that many people (not just women) suffer from harassment in the workplace (not just sexual).  And most do not report it. 

A 2017 survey of 2235 women showed over 30% had experienced harassment, but only 29% of those who experienced it reported it.

A 2013 poll indicated that 75% of those who experienced harassment did not report it.

A survey cited by the EEOC in 2016 reported that around 90% of those who experienced harassment did not report it. 

These statistics are even more depressing when you consider that employers have been working on prevention and correction of harassment for decades, but the reporting numbers have not changed.  A 1994 poll found that an almost identical number of people who experienced harassment did not report it: 72%.  So the number have not improved over the years. 

The reasons why people do not report are often psychological, but they also stem from issues of trust and organizational culture.  The psychological reasons, documented in many studies are things like:

  • Fear of losing their job

  • Fear of retaliation (In a 2003 study of those who reported harassment, 75 percent indicated they suffered retaliation for reporting.)

  • Fear of getting someone into trouble (we are all taught from an early age that no one likes a tattletale!)

  • Fear of disrupting the workplace, causing a scene or uproar

  • Fear of being accused of having no sense of humor, not being a team player, being ostracized

  • Fear of being embarrassed

  • Fear of not being believed

  • Fear of feeling powerless or not valued

The reasons are as varied as the person, but those are general categories of how people may respond in the real life situation.  So what do organizations do to encourage the elbows to come forward.

First, acknowledge that we DO want the elbows to come forward. 

Organizations can be proud of having no complaints, but from the above statistics we know every organization probably has had something happen.  A lack of complaints does not mean it is not happening.  Organizations need to continually encourage reporting, showing an interest in knowing what is happening.

Second, make sure everyone knows that it is their responsibility to report, whether they are the victim of harassment or not.  If you see something, say something. 

Third, continually reinforce that those who come forward are doing their part, as members of the team, to make sure that harassment is not occurring, and fix it when it does.   

Fourth, train supervisors and managers to encourage reporting, and how to act when something is reported. 

Fifth, conduct regular training where this message is reinforced. Training by itself without all these other things (especially number ten) will not work, but you have to keep sending the message, over and over. 

Sixth, followup on any reports to make sure no retaliation is occurring. 

Seventh, follow up with the workgroup where issues have been reported, to make sure the team knows that they will be held accountable for making sure those reporting problems are not treated badly because they came forward. Make sure everyone knows that no retaliation will be tolerated, and the whole workgroup is responsible.

Eighth, hold everyone accountable for their part. In a 2017 poll, 95% of women who reported experiencing harassment also reported that the perpetrator was unpunished.  That number varies by poll, but it is still very high in every poll I have seen.  Lack of accountability for those who perpetrate harassment means the elbow will remain in the shadows.  Hold supervisors responsible for not following up.  Hold team members responsible for not treating people appropriately. 

Ninth, work with leaders in leadership development programs so that they can develop the kinds of skills that will help them to prevent harassment, but especially encourage those who are experiencing it to come forward.  Listening skills, compassion, etc. 

Tenth, and most importantly, work on developing a culture of trust within your organization, where team members trust that their leaders are highly ethical, that the leader do what they say, and that the leader can be trusted to do the right thing when a problem arises. 

Another statistic from the 2017 poll is also noteworthy:  75% of Americans now identify sexual harassment in the workplace as a "problem" with 64% deeming it a "serious problem."  Public support for harassment prevention has never been higher, so the time is now for organizational leaders to bring the elbow out of the shadow. 

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