Elizabeth Owens Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP

It is widely understood that an organization will not be successful–and certainly will not grow and thrive–without robust data on all aspects of its operations. In business, organizations routinely gather and study data about sales, production, margin, and customer satisfaction to name just a few.

Organizations pour over this information month after month because current, accurate data is critical to knowing whether its initiatives and operations in a particular area are working well or whether a new strategy is badly needed.

This same data-informed approach must also be used to effectively address workplace harassment and discrimination. Indeed, it is only through data that organizations will truly know how and where to devote their resources and initiatives for maximum impact–and demonstrate whether their workplace harassment and discrimination prevention efforts are actually working.

What types of data can and should be collected to address and prevent workplace harassment and discrimination, and how can such data be used?

Workplace Data Sources and How to Use Them

First, a great deal of data can be gathered through employee surveys that are either delivered on their own or as an integrated part of a workplace harassment and discrimination prevention training course. Responses to questions posed in these surveys can provide the employer with critical insights about organizational culture and climate–and a targeted, action-oriented roadmap for next steps.

For example, one critical area to measure is related to bystander intervention; specifically, how comfortable and equipped individuals feel to step in if they witness concerning behavior at work.  Research demonstrates that there is often a misperception about others’ willingness to get involved in situations related to workplace harassment, a gap between what individuals report that they themselves would do versus what they believe their co-workers would do. This gap in perception about coworker views can actually cause individuals to not intervene, out of fear of social retribution or lack of support.

Thus, if an organization’s data reveal this same gap, the organization could improve its current workplace harassment prevention training to include bystander intervention training. It could also launch a messaging campaign–tailored by the department if the data allows–that could state, for example, “We all want this to be a great place to work–and we can all play a part. X% of our organization’s employees report they would step in to stop harassment in the workplace. If you take action in a situation that concerns you, your colleagues and managers will support you.”  This messaging is critical to engaging individuals to be a part of the solution to stop disrespectful behavior before it escalates into illegal behavior.

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Another survey question could ask how comfortable employees, faculty, or staff would feel raising concerns to someone in their workplace. If the responses indicate room for improvement, the organization could promptly look into whether it offers a sufficient number and sufficiently varied types of channels and points of contact for reporting discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It could gather additional data regarding utilization rates of each channel; the frequency, methods, and messaging of communications about such channels; and how reports via each channel were ultimately handled to determine whether any barriers–real or perceived–may exist to their use. Finally, all of this gathered data could also be used to launch leadership-driven messaging to both employees and supervisors to communicate the organization’s authentic desire to know about concerns and its commitment to absolute non-retaliation for good faith reports.

Of course, a great deal of information can also be gleaned by studying information contained within or related to reported complaints of workplace harassment and discrimination–even if those complaints, when investigated individually, were found not to involve behavior egregious enough to warrant a sanction against the person accused.

For example, are there patterns in the types of employees filing complaints (e.g., tenure, job function, or personal characteristics), the department or location in which they work, or the job function/level of the person against whom the complaints are filed? Was there a spike in reports following certain organizational events, such as sales meetings or holiday parties, or following the hiring of a new department head?

Other types of data may be gathered and used to inform the focus and delivery of targeted workplace harassment prevention initiatives. Such data may include or be derived from:

  • Exit interview narratives
  • Employee/faculty/staff engagement surveys
  • Turnover statistics
  • Absenteeism data
  • Discussions with employees and supervisors/faculty and staff

If patterns emerge in the data gathered, organizations can quickly dig deeper to uncover where additional, targeted efforts are needed. Indeed, some have posited that data analytics can even be applied to predict precisely where workplace harassment and discrimination is most likely to occur in the future, thus enabling an organization to focus its efforts accordingly.

Through data insights, organizations can determine whether they need to address the working environment in a particular location or department, the work experiences of a particular cohort of employees, or the conduct at certain events. All of these actions can improve workplace culture and curb behaviors and dynamics that may, if left unaddressed, escalate into harassment.

A Final Note About Risk and Using Data to Prevent Workplace Harassment

The idea of collecting organizational data on the subject of harassment and discrimination may evoke a concern that doing so will lead to additional risks, such as legal exposure or expectations from an employee that leadership will take action. But these risks are not materially different from those that arise any time an organization embarks upon routine safety testing, internal audit work, or even employee/student engagement surveys.

It’s true, the results of these data collection and self-reflection efforts often reveal both strengths and opportunities–and sometimes an urgent issue that requires immediate action and the involvement of legal counsel. But this information also provides the basis for a highly-informed, targeted plan to promptly address workplace harassment and discrimination. And while the feedback sometimes may be difficult to hear, organizations understand that the “risk” of knowing critical information and needing to take action as a result far outweighs the risks of not knowing, to include: employee or faculty/staff turnover; absenteeism; brand damage; and legal violations and litigation.

The truth is, if we don’t understand and address the conditions in our workplaces that may be creating an elevated risk of harassment and discrimination, an organization may already have legal exposure and cultural damage occurring. Indeed, as has been reported in several high-profile sexual harassment cases, numerous employees may be well aware of ongoing workplace harassment and discrimination but do not report the “open secret” internally due to social dynamics, fear of retaliation, or other factors–until the scandal becomes front-page news.

Indeed, receiving climate-related information directly from employees through a course survey or focus groups, or spotting a potentially problematic supervisor through a review of turnover or exit interview records, enables an organization to actually take action to stop concerning behavior before it escalates into illegal behavior. Doing so not only protects the company’s legal position but also improves its workplace culture. And, of course, proactive data gathering–whether done internally or with the assistance of outside legal counsel–is a far preferable method of learning about employee concerns for the first time, rather than via social or traditional media–or in a legal complaint.

Finally, engaging in these types of proactive self-assessments and follow-up actions may be very helpful as organizations seek to demonstrate their good faith efforts in this area of critical interest to Boards of Directors, shareholders, and regulators.

Understanding the strengths and opportunities for improvement of current workplace practices gives organizations powerful tools to address workplace harassment and discrimination. By applying the same rigorous data practices routinely used in other organizational areas to workplace harassment and discrimination prevention efforts, institutions can focus their resources, maximize the ROI of their initiatives, improve workplace culture, maintain legal compliance–and minimize risk.

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