After going public with sexual harassment claims, Martina Brostrom, a UNAIDS external relations officer, told The Lancet, “I am speaking up publicly now because I have exhausted all internal UN channels for justice to no avail. Despite strong evidence, most of which was ignored in the investigation and final investigation report, my assailant has been exonerated. I consider the investigation as flawed and biased.”
The UN said that it will reopen their investigation internally, but many, including other international health organizations, have called for an independent investigation.
Unfortunately, this is an all too common story. In an environment where non-reporting or underreporting is still widespread, companies should see independent oversight as a way to give employees confidence in their system and help organizations find weak links in their processes.
In this blog series, we’ve explored the specific needs and challenges of incident and corporate misconduct reporting for employees and whistleblowers (part one) and the critical role of Human Resources (part two). Independent Overseers are the third essential players in a comprehensive anti-harassment strategy.
Independent Oversight: What is it and how to establish it
There’s little worse than an employee attempting to come forward or call attention to corporate misconduct and nothing happens. Whether it’s blatant disregard or an internal inability to handle the situations being raised, it happens. And it happens—far too often.
A quick scan through the headlines will uncover various instances, highlighting the fact that current incident management practices, employee hotlines and corporate policies are falling short.
In addition to adequate reporting mechanisms and an empowered HR team, organizations must have independent oversight for a comprehensive anti-harassment and corporate misconduct strategy. Independent oversight creates objectivity. It protects employees and fosters action and response. Independent oversight creates a balance between employees, leaders and the board and shareholders.
An independent party, whether that means a law firm or a member of your Board of Directors, should review all complaints as well as the workplace response to those events. The following are best practices for establishing independent oversight in your corporate misconduct and reporting strategy.
#1. Establish a Cadence
Oversight should be a regular part of your company strategy. In a recent report, the Council of Institutional Investors suggests, “all boards should discuss sexual harassment, including an examination of their companies’ policies. To ensure accountability, reports of sexual harassment, especially those against senior officials, must be brought to the board’s attention early, treated seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
We recommend regular oversight on a quarterly basis and a system that allows for oversight committees to be notified when issues are reported or escalated. The system should also allow for automatic notification and tracking of complaints through the entire process. With proper data collection and tracking in place, it’s easy for an Independent Oversight Committee to conduct an audit or evaluate a case.
#2. Pay Attention to Detail
Reports should be as detailed as possible. Ideally, they should include the nature of complaints, supporting documentation, action taken and next action management status for the overseer. The overseer should also receive anonymized reports, with no mention of names. While more difficult to investigate, the insight is invaluable. An overseer needs to be able to look at the details of a specific incident, but they also need to make sure that the process allows for proper reporting and documentation of those details.
- Does the report include how many complaints have been filed about the harasser?
- How many distinct/unique reports of harassment have been reported?
- Was the harasser’s direct manager previously notified of the incident(s)?
These key questions, along with others, help overseers not only address reported issues but also gauge how their current systems are working and where they may be ineffective. When details are missing, oversight can make sure that those questions are part of the documentation process in the future.
#3. Escalate and Act
The workplace response to reports and incidents has understandably come under fire in light of recent high-profile scandals. The UK Trades Union Congress found in a survey that “The vast majority of employees do not report sexual harassment and, of those who do, about half were not satisfied with the outcome.”
In another example showcasing inadequate workplace response, CNN found 103 Uber drivers had been accused of sexual assault or abuse. Among them were criminal and civil cases, convictions or ongoing investigations. The number of reported, known and ongoing cases is startling, begging the question of whether Uber failed to appropriately escalate reports to minimize sexual harassment cases and protect passenger safety in the first place.
Incorporating independent oversight into your corporate misconduct and incident management strategy brings an additional layer of accountability and assurance to employees (or customers) that reports matter and are being addressed. Case in point, following the external investigation by CNN, Uber announced various changes and reiterated its commitment to safety and sexual assault prevention as “a new priority for us.”
Though HR teams play a significant role in investigating and recommending action, independent oversight can suggest alternative actions or an escalation from the initial recommendation. These independent recommendations can also apply to the broader company response and culture. No one wants the press to be the ones conducting an oversight investigation. A clear escalation path and response need to occur; an independent oversight team can ensure that happens.
Protect your employees, protect the business:
Create a comprehensive incident management strategy
While companies can do a lot to strengthen their own internal response mechanisms, including anonymous reporting and tracking of reports, companies also need to be aware of where they need more rigor and greater support.
Investigations by an Independent Overseer lend fresh eyes and a broader look at the pulse of your company. They strengthen confidence in your company’s ability to deal with problems when they arise. Today, independent oversight is a no-brainer for any company wanting to instill a comprehensive corporate misconduct and anti-harassment strategy.