Skip to content

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Harassment Prevention

​Sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile public figures have appeared in the news repeatedly this year, spurring broad debate on the prevalence of the problem, as well as the potential effectiveness of different prevention measures. 

Although their views may differ regarding the value of different prevention components, many security professionals seem united on a core issue: harassment is a serious workplace issue both in the United States and around the world, and it is one that deserves more attention and more prevention programs.

“Unfortunately, most people do not consider sexual harassment as a workplace violence issue, but this is a serious mistake,” the ASIS International Crime and Loss Prevention Council said in a white paper, Sexual Victimization, issued last year. “…It is imperative that we in the security industry each gain a greater awareness of the prevalence of this crime.” 

One preventative measure that has attracted recent attention is the use of company phone hotlines for anonymously reporting incidents of workplace harassment. The harassment hotline concept came into focus after intense media coverage of harassment allegations made against prominent Fox News broadcaster Bill O’Reilly by several female coworkers and program guests. The allegations eventually led Fox News to terminate O’Reilly’s contract in April 2017. 

O’Reilly said that the allegations were spurious, and he maintained that no complaints against him had ever been reported on the company’s harassment hotline. But some experts say that a lack of hotline calls is never surprising and does not accurately reflect frequency of incidents. 

Brian Lee, practice leader at CEB (now part of Gartner), a consultancy specializing in workplace incidents, says that, on the one hand, hotlines or “helplines” can be a valid component of an overall safe workplace programs. “But they are certainly not as helpful as people would want,” he adds. In part, this is because many companies employ a hotline for legal reasons, but do not publicize the actual phone number, which is sometimes embedded in a corporate policy handbook. “If you poll their employees, many have no idea what the number is, or how to get it,” Lee explains.

Another reason for low hotline use is that some employees suspect that the hotline isn’t truly anonymous, even if it is billed as such. Media reports of cases like the Wells Fargo fake account scandal of 2016, in which supposedly anonymous reports were still used for retaliation against whistleblowers, “have a chilling effect” on hotline use, Lee says.  

In addition, the hotline can feel too impersonal, like taking a complaint and “dropping it in a box somewhere,” says Stephen Hollowell, CPP, vice chair of the ASIS International Crime and Loss Prevention Council and a member of the ASIS International Healthcare Council. Hollowell helped prepare the Sexual Victimization white paper. 

A recent CEB global study on workplace misconduct seems to support Hollowell’s view. Only about 7 percent of respondents reported that they had used a hotline to file a complaint, compared with 68 percent who reported the incident to their direct managers. “The use of helplines tends to be much lower than people think,” Lee says. “It is far from the most popular way [of reporting].”

But unlike hotlines, other components of workplace safety programs have been shown to be effective, says Hollowell, who is an advocate for treating harassment with the same seriousness as other incidents of workplace violence. One such component is harassment training for all employees, which starts with orientation but does not end there. 

“You don’t just do it one time in orientation and then forget about it,” he says. Companies should provide periodic updates. Hollowell was involved in one organization that used the company’s weekly internal magazine to remind people that they should not hesitate to speak to their manager or call the firm’s helpline to report an incident. 

Experts often say that there are two main reasons why many harassment incidents go unreported: fear of retaliation, and previous demonstrated inaction by the company. Given this, a rigorous prevention program should address both these concerns, Hollowell says.

To do this, managers should make clear that the company’s workplace is one free of harassment and violence, and that this ethos is reflected in the procedures for reporting complaints. Hollowell uses his own program as an example: if a complaint is reported to a supervisor and the supervisor does not take action, the employee is encouraged to take the complaint to the supervisor’s supervisor, or to another department like human resources or security. “We make it very clear,” he says. Additional action will take place immediately, if the complaint is valid, he adds. 

Another point that should be made clear is that whistleblowers are protected. If an employee is penalized by a manager for filing a complaint in any way–such as by being assigned extra work or by having privileges taken away–“we make it very clear you need to come forward and make us aware of it,” Hollowell explains. “That could lead to [the manager’s] termination.” 

However, it is also a workplace reality that, occasionally, false harassment allegations are made. This is one reason Hollowell does not like anonymous reporting—it makes it easier for disgruntled employees to target certain people, such as a coworker or supervisor they hold a grudge against, with false complaints.   

Given the possibility of false claims, impartial investigations are crucial, Hollowell says. Investigators take a “just the facts” approach, sticking to exactly what happened, and following wherever the facts lead. “If you start assuming, you’re not following the facts,” he says. Finally, keeping people informed of procedures and policies is crucial. “Transparency really is the watchword,” he adds. 

For many years, harassment prevention programs would emphasize that company leaders needed to set a good example in their behavior, because the tone at the top was key. “But increasingly, that is just table stakes now,” Lee says. More firms are realizing that a coworker’s behavior is just as important as a manager’s behavior. “Employees are far more influenced by what they see around them than what they see at the top,” he adds. 

Indeed, that philosophy is at the heart of a recommendation made recently by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. In a report issued last year, the task force cochairs recommended exploring an “It’s On Us” campaign for U.S. workplaces.

“It’s On Us” is a social movement first created in 2014 by the White House to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign urged everyone on campus to be an active part of the solution, not passive observers. Launching a similar campaign in workplaces across the country would be “an audacious goal,” and not easy, the EEOC task force concedes. 

“But doing so would transform the problem of workplace harassment from being about target, harassers, and legal compliance,” the task force argues, “and make it one in which coworkers, supervisors, clients, and customers all have roles to play in stopping harassment.” ​