A sympathetic ear can feel like the only alternative when the workplace does not seem to offer viable paths to a solution. By sharing stories with supportive colleagues, targets of negative behavior can find comfort, validation, and affirmation that they did not deserve what they experienced.
But simply having trusted colleagues at work to whom one can speak confidentially about sensitive topics will not help to bring about positive change. It is important to develop a process that constructively moves beyond shared stories with trusted colleagues and helps pave the way for future employees to avoid the same pain. To do so requires the courage to speak up to help change the culture.
While interviewing people for The Shield of Silence, I felt heartened by those who described positive results that occurred when concerns were raised within their own organization. In these instances, individuals did not accept that senior-level executives or leaders had actual knowledge of someone’s bad behavior, notwithstanding admonishments from others in the workplace to the contrary. Their suppositions were correct as was their belief in the underlying decency of the organization’s leaders. Their intervention resulted in a swift response that left no doubt about leadership commitment to a culture in which people are treated respectfully.
Of course, in many workplaces, barriers to reporting continue to exist, including at the leadership level. Even worse, the lack of reporting builds on itself, impacting a victim’s willingness to be the first to raise concerns about a perpetrator’s negative conduct.
Informal sharing of information is an unsatisfactory alternative to the preferred result of an institutional response. Underreporting results in a culture that fosters continued negative conduct from perpetrators, emboldens others, and fuels the emergence of unconscious biases.
It also allows workplace leaders to convince themselves that a reported or witnessed behavior is not part of a larger pattern. If victims hesitate to report their experiences and if there is no repository of information indicating otherwise, it is too easy to assume that all is well. Without knowing more, however, such leaders may be lulled into a false sense of security.
Accordingly, this is an area where everyone in the workplace should be committed to identifying patterns of behaviors. Even if formal reporting feels unsafe and no anonymous reporting mechanism seems available, employees who experience or witness harassment or other negative conduct should document the behaviors by, for example, maintaining copies of and otherwise keeping track of emails, texts, voicemails, and other information.
In the absence of a trusted reporting process, the sharing of informal information can assist in identifying offenders and paving the way for future follow up. Some victims who are fearful of choosing to report may be willing to share their story later, when they can use their voice in support of someone else who came forward for similar reasons. We have seen from the decades of abusive behaviors that underlie so many #MeToo stories that the first report of bad behavior can be the hardest. Often, it is only after those first allegations are made that victims are more willing to speak up and corroborate the initial claim.
We are at an important cultural moment where the pressures to address workplace misconduct and create a respectful and inclusive environment have never been greater. Everyone in the workplace benefits when there is a full commitment to this goal.