Corporate sexual harassment hotlines don’t work. They’re not designed to

Gone but not forgotten.
Gone but not forgotten.
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As fresh allegations of sexual harassment swirled around its star anchor, Fox News made a convenient observation on behalf of its parent company: Not one employee, it told the New York Times in a statement, “ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously.”

Fox News may be known for keeping a loose grip on the truth, but there was no reason to doubt the network on this. Corporate complaint hotlines like the one at Fox News tend not to get very busy—not because harassment isn’t happening, but because hotlines for reporting harassment are rarely designed to be used by employees.

What they’re mainly designed for is legal cover for companies, which can point to them, should the need arise, to demonstrate their efforts at protecting employees from a hostile work environment. O’Reilly, who has denied the allegations, also noted the lack of calls to the Fox hotline.

According to the Times, many employees at Fox didn’t even know the hotline existed—a not-unusual circumstance, according to Ramona Paetzold, a management professor at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. “It is common to have hotlines, to encourage employees to use them, and to make the phone numbers obscure,” she says.

Even if awareness and accessibility aren’t a problem, an employee’s comfort level in making a complaint might be an issue.

Victims of harassment frequently don’t report it, and a survey of more than 300,000 employees by CEB, now part of Gartner, shows that when they do, hotlines are the least popular mechanism for doing so. Only 7% of respondents who had witnessed or experienced harassment said they had reported it through a hotline.

“Whenever the organization is involved in the reporting, ” says Brian Kropp, the HR practice leader at CEB, “as much as you might say it’s anonymous or confidential, nobody believes you.”

To actually curb harassment, and not just the legal risk associated with it, companies need to commit to (and employees need to demand) cultural changes that encourage reporting of problematic behavior and have a fighting chance of deterring it in the first place.

For starters, offenders need to be fired

Research has demonstrated over and over again that one of the most important aspects of establishing a workplace culture that doesn’t condone harassment is accountability. Seeing leaders make an honest attempt to stop harassment can make women feel more comfortable reporting it in the first place.

“When employees see the first case of harassment come through, and someone gets fired, they start to realize the culture really is different,” says Texas A&M’s Paetzold. “That’s what it takes to start changing a culture.”

Remember: organizations that do not tolerate harassment have lower levels of harassment. So, in the case of substantiated sexual harassment, fire the jerk.

But don’t stop there. Managers tasked with handling complaints about an offending employee also have a responsibility. They need to be held accountable, too.

As the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission puts it, “accountability systems must ensure that those who engage in harassment are held responsible in a meaningful, appropriate, and proportional manner, and that those whose job it is to prevent or respond to harassment, directly or indirectly, are rewarded for doing that job well, or penalized for failing to do so.”

Offer a course in ”civility”

Studies on the effectiveness of some harassment-prevention training programs have shown that they do effectively educate people about which behaviors constitute harassment. But research into whether they effectively prevent harassment has had mixed results.

A well-known alternative to traditional harassment-prevention training is called civility training (research shows that incivility correlates with harassment). In this type of training, employers address a range of maladaptive behaviors, from rudeness to shunning to harassment. This more subtle tactic may be more effective in reaching people who are prone to shut themselves off from more traditional rhetoric around harassment.

Hire an ombudsman

In 2015, almost a third of the 90,000 reports of employer discrimination filed with the US federal government involved complaints about harassment, sexual or otherwise. That sounds like a high number. But formally reporting harassment, whether internally or in a lawsuit, is actually one of the least common ways that workers respond to harassment, according to a 2008 summary of research. This finding, by Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, and Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the University of British Columbia, suggest that each year there are tens of thousands more cases of harassment that go unreported, and that’s just in the US.

The choice not to report may come down to a survival strategy. A separate study published by Cortina and another co-author in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that two-thirds of employees who reported sexual harassment experienced some form of retaliation.

Many experts suggest creating multiple pathways for employees to prevent harassment, including some that don’t include their manager. Kropp suggests a clear break in the chain of command, when it comes to reporting harassment. “If I were to be able to start over from scratch,” he says, “I would think about how a newspaper has an ombudsman between the public and the newspaper. You almost have to create an ombudsman.”

But also make clear that harassment-prevention is everyone’s job

In a survey of 340,000 employees at 21 companies by CEB, about 8% of respondents said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment, but only about 50% said they had reported it.

Training bystanders to intervene and report sexual harassment fosters a sense of shared responsibility. It’s already a common practice for addressing sexual violence on college campuses. Employers would be wise to make sure their workers are similarly equipped to take action.

Finally, leadership has to actually care

In 2015, the EEOC launched a task force to research how workplace harassment could best be prevented. The committee of academics, law practitioners, employees, labor leaders, and other experts heard testimony from 30 people and conducted a literature review.

“Over and over again, during the course of our study, we heard that workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment,” task force co-chairs Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic, both EEOC commissioners, wrote in their final report. (Lipnic has since been named acting EEOC chair by US president Donald Trump.)

The report notes that “…across the board, we heard that leadership and commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace in which harassment is simply not acceptable is paramount. And we heard that this leadership must come from the very top of the organization.”

One way leadership influences behavior is communicating priorities. As CEB’s Kropp notes, if your company spends more time training employees on the expense system than on harassment-prevention, that alone is saying something.

And if your company thinks it doesn’t have a sexual-harassment problem just because the corporate complaints hotline has been quiet, that’s saying something, too.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that about 50% of respondents in a CEB study said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment, but only 8% said they had reported it. It has been updated to reflect that 8% of employees observe sexual harassment in the workplace, but only about 50% of those 8% report it. 

This article originally appeared at and was first published on May 2, 2017.