Harassment reporting apps won’t solve all HR’s problems

6 Mar 2019 By Arran Heal

Anonymous platforms for reporting inappropriate workplace behaviour are appearing in their droves but, as Arran Heal explains, they bring with them their own concerns

New reporting apps are going to help more employees speak up about inappropriate behaviour at work. There are going to be more claims, more awareness of grievances and what can be done. But, ultimately and most importantly, will there be more truth?

#NotMe, StopIt, Spot, Workshield, Vault and their ilk are all apps being piloted or already in use in the US and UK, enabling staff to overcome their fears of reporting issues. Some send anonymous messages direct to HR, others are monitored by the app's in-house team, who can investigate and recommend action. Another ensures claims and evidence are time-stamped and saved for later reference and exploration via blockchain. 

The new cultural climate means employers have to be open to the new tech – and certainly anything that removes barriers to people speaking up has to be encouraged.

At the same time, HR needs to deal with the reality that easy reporting also means opportunities for more antagonistic and malicious accusations, made far more casually. There needs to be a balance between attentive listening and being dragged into embarrassing showdowns and costly investigations in terms of time, reputation and payouts.

First of all, employee relations teams must have the capacity to deal with the potential for increased number of reported complaints, to ensure the organisation can always demonstrate it is being responsive. Triage systems will be essential for filtering the concerns raised, and in particular to avoid the situation where everything automatically goes into formal processes because that’s the only option. For example, it may be possible to deal with many situations through the use of mediation. Easy signposting of the options and managing employee expectations – emphasising the importance of understanding and discussion and the possibility of achieving reasonable resolutions over just looking for punishment and revenge – will be critical for HR teams to manage an additional workload of claims. 

There’s also the issue of anonymity. Many of the new apps encourage anonymous reporting, leading to the potential for a flurry of complaints and suspicion that can’t be fully explored or acted on without discussion with individual employees. And what about all the personal, sensitive and controversial data that’s being collected? It’s potentially very dangerous material. Just like Facebook and other content hosts, the platforms can be considered to be ‘publishers’ accountable for accusations that are defamatory. Staff who know they’re the subject of complaints have the right to have data about them deleted. With all of this in mind, HR needs to ensure employee data is being handled within guidelines by any of these third parties, and have policies and processes in place with those they contract with.

When people rely on anonymity it can be symptomatic of wider issues, a general lack of trust, of a secretive workplace culture. And that should be a signal for the need to look more strategically at how to encourage feelings of safety, that it’s possible to have open and grown-up conversations without politics and without repercussions. That means clear policies and a consistent response, a principle of transparency no matter the level of staff seniority involved.

Employee voices need to be heard, and the new tech is likely to become a familiar aspect of working life. But the platforms in themselves only open up a door. They only provide a solution when that door leads to trusted processes that help people manage any resulting conflicts in mature and constructive ways.

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP

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