Every company has the responsibility to provide a safe workplace, and prevent or limit #metoo like situations. Recently, new legislation is being progressed in the Netherlands that requires companies to appoint a confidant and an associated protocol. In an effort to lower the threshold for reporting unacceptable behavior in a work setting.
During 2023, we received within our group of companies one report. How to handle such a report? First of all, it is important to understand whether it is a formal complaint or not, and whether the report is to be treated anonymously or not. The protocol for confidants determines the further actions.
From a board point of view, it doesn’t matter too much if there is a formal complaint or not. Following the safe workplace objective, it is good to investigate the situation and learn from it. To be able to prevent repeats of unacceptable behaviors in the future. It is therefore important not to keep a too close lid on the report. Only through discussing the outcomes, learnings and consequences with staff, a company’s culture changes. At the same time, we have to protect the privacy of the involved persons unless any of them decides otherwise.
For colleagues it is often a big step to report unacceptable behavior or report affairs in case that there is potentially an unwanted entanglement between work and romance. If someone comes forward with a personal story it is therefore – in my opinion – good to compliment the person for breaking the silence, as this is often not easy. And, be a good and active listener to fully understand the details, circumstances, behaviors and responses.
Whenever possible, it is good if a detailed, written account can be provided. In a private interview, further questions can be asked. In a follow up, it is also important to follow up with interviews by multiple independents of the others who are involved. To hear their side of the story. This is also an implicit message that unacceptable behaviors are taken very seriously and to form independent opinions. It helps to determine which facts match and which not.
One of the first things to do is to review internal regulations and update them – if necessary – in the light of the report. Within Icecat, we recently updated our internal regulations, communicated these, appointed an internal confidant, and setup a protocol. To prepare for the upcoming legislation. We chose for a female confidant to compensate for potential male bias in our board, and lower the threshold. We’ll provide external training for the confidant, as it is a new additional role for this colleague.
In the case of a #metoo situation, it is important to establish whether it is an incident or there is a pattern. Next, there is also the immediate question of who should do this investigation. On the one hand, there is the opinion that some companies too quickly outsource and escalate #metoo investigations to legal consultants and don’t take ownership. On the other hand, if an organization is a hornet’s nest, it can not be trusted with an impartial and unbiased investigation, of course. To correct for -inevitable – male, cultural, and other biases, it is important to consult others, including a lawyer.
Even if one can’t establish a pattern of similar incidents within a company, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. As people typically keep sensitive stories to themselves, it is good to discuss #metoo stories to ensure that the threshold for reporting is lowered.
It is good to establish that unacceptable behaviors typically lead to damage to stakeholders. A victim experiences severe psychological stress. A good employee might be lost to the company. Company resources are wasted. The involved staff’s performance is likely to be affected. Further, by not reporting – for example – a personal consenting relationship timely to the board, one robs the company of the opportunity to mitigate the risks before they materialize. The most logical measure, in this example, is to make sure that the lovers’ work interactions would be minimized by ensuring that they are in separate departments and have independent reporting channels.
To best way ensure that a repeat of a #metoo incident becomes (even) less likely is by being completely transparent about it. However, a confidant, complaint committee and management are also bound to protecting the privacy of the involved. Ideal would be if the involved can share their story themselves and discuss their mistakes candidly with their colleagues directly. This gives colleagues the opportunity to reflect on it from their perspectives, which accelerates the learning process and develops the culture to something more mature. It requires a high trust environment to do so.
Depending on the gravity of an incident, proportional penalties might be in place. This can range from formal warning notices, obligations to follow an appropriate training or therapy, or to suspension. In the more severe cases further escalations are required.
Read further: News, metoo, remedies, safeworkplace
Founder and CEO of Icecat NV. Investor. Ph.D.
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