Ten Competing Sexual Misconduct Reporting “Solutions:” Who Benefits?
In a June 2016 Report, the EEOC cited a study that indicated, “…on average, anywhere between 87% and 94% of individuals did not file a formal complaint [of harassment.]” Statistics from other studies confirm well over half of sexual harassment cases are underreported. Work-related sexual misconduct is comprised not only of a range of harassing behaviors that build up to prove a work environment is hostile, but also of sexual assault. Assault as well is underreported; in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that 76+% of rapes were not reported.
Why is sexual misconduct, both harassment and assault, under-reported? Studies so far have focused primarily on the challenges assault survivors face when making a report, particularly the psychology of processing traumatic experiences and the additional trauma and consequences a survivor may incur in interacting with Human Resources and the justice system. Far less studied is why non-traumatic, work-related sexual harassment is also under-reported, though a focus of study has been fear of retaliation.
To meet SEC requirements, many large, publicly-held companies rely on a third-party provider to implement a website or hotline through which a company’s employees can anonymously report ethical concerns; reports are then typically channeled through legal or HR to the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors. Currently available misconduct reporting solutions, dominated by provider NavEx Global, may not address victims and survivors of misconduct with as much sensitivity as is needed for them to feel comfortable using this channel of reporting. As well, the report format for fraud and ethics is narrow, for example, asking at which corporate address an event occurred, when misconduct can and does take place offsite.
Working under the assumption that one barrier to reporting sexual misconduct could be aversion to the currently available reporting processes, no fewer than ten organizations, including businesses and nonprofits, have been launched as of mid-2019 with the intent of providing sexual misconduct-specific reporting solutions.
To understand the ten new solutions, it is important to understand their origins. Two organizations providing solutions, Project Callisto and StopIt Solutions, were launched in education markets which rarely use systems such as NavEx Global; the former first addressed assault on college campuses, while the latter dealt with bullying in primary and secondary school. Other solutions were designed from the ground up with businesses or legal cases or investigations in mind. Only one seems to now be targeting a single, industry; VoicesinAction is targeting entertainment.
It is also important to understand how the ten recoup their investment… who pays these organizations for their technology and services? Targeting corporate HR departments, eight of the ten are focused on adoption as an exclusive sexual misconduct reporting solution at an organization, providing a parallel system to existing company ethics reporting solution. However, instead of the “traditional” legal-to-audit-committee route, the new systems instead channel reports to:
- a “neutral” third party legal consultant with client-attorney privilege,
- a less neutral “investigator” (funded by the company),
- HR itself, in the event of a non-criminal case, or
- a hybrid of the above.
Regardless of where the reports end up, the benefits to an organization adopting such a system are the potential to learn of an issue earlier and to intervene and address the challenge. The organization may also benefit if offering such a system increases reporting by reducing anxiety about reporting. Another potential benefit is a reduction of interpersonal missteps that might occur between individuals in legal/HR and those reporting. Lastly, a number of companies are offering analytics and file management that might help companies that otherwise struggle with record keeping.
Benefits to the survivor or victim of sexual misconduct, interacting with a system sponsored by their employer, are less obvious. The most touted would be that interacting with a computerized system might be more private than speaking to an insensitive human; a database is also less likely to spread rumors to one’s immediate colleagues. Some solutions promise free attorney-client privileged advice. Several promise to produce a time-stamped report. Three claim that after filing their report, a survivor or victim may be connected to others who share the same perpetrator, though this appears to be a by-product of the reporting system. Some commit to a high degree of security/encryption around the reported data; others do not. Two engage investigators, though it’s unclear how this would benefit a survivor or victim.
Will any of these solutions increase reporting? To the extent they provide a more accessible and sensitive way to report misconduct, especially in global companies, it’s possible a computer system may do a better job of consistently, encouragingly and confidentially collecting employee sexual misconduct concerns.
Yet, before a victim or survivor opts into their organization’s system, victims and survivors have more choices of how, when and where they report their misconduct experience. They can write their report in an email and send it to themselves, obtaining a timestamp without ever engaging with their employer or a reporting system; in doing so, they remain completely in control of their report until they choose to send it wherever they choose, which might not be the “company-preferred channel.” After obtaining advice through websites such as RAINN, the Times Up Legal Defense Fund, or an ombuds, they can hire their preferred legal advisor without the company being alerted. Without filing a report, they can choose to identify others harmed by the same perpetrator, through a system such as https://www.ImWithThem.org.
Leaving aside the proposed benefits to organizations and/or end-users, which of these companies is likely to survive and thrive over the long run? For that, examine who is backing each horse. AllVoices has funding from a variety of tech founders. Vault Platform has recently closed a round of seed funding at $4.2 million. Jdoe emerged from a Halcyon incubator. Remarkably, even nonprofit Project Callisto has received an “investment” from Greylock Partners. For many, the exit strategy would appear to be to sell to NavEx Global or one of its competitors.
Employers should cautiously approach adopting a solution that restricts employees’ reporting choices for the same reason companies are now scrutinized for requiring mandatory arbitration: is the employer’s sexual misconduct reporting solution primarily serving the interest of employees, or its own? The best reporting solution would encourage reporting and resolution while enabling the flexibility for employees to retain anonymity and their own counsel. Still, the question for all ten is when existing providers of anonymous reporting solutions, such as NavEx Global, will identify the benefits of specialized sexual misconduct reporting solutions and whether they will roll those features into their own.
I’m With Themis a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to reducing work-related sexual misconduct. The I’m With Themwebsite provides introductions between victims and survivors of sexual misconduct who share a common serial perpetrator. For more analysis of corporate 1-800 hotlines and reporting mechanisms, see our reports: “Bridging the Gap in Reporting Sexual Misconduct,” and “Bridging the Gap in Reporting Sexual Misconduct in Tech.” Follow us on social media at @imwiththtemTOO
 Feldblum & Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, June 2016
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