Is your workplace safe for your staff?

Roger Parry and Clare Harris, Agenda Consulting
(Webinar, 2 May 2019)

Organisations that want to ensure a respectful workplace face the challenge of change. Since 2017, attitudes have changed. Following a few high profile cases and the #MeToo movement, people who have suffered are increasingly coming forward. The initial focus on sexual harrassment and assault has now widened. There is greater awareness of the scale and impact of abuse, and an increasing intolerance of abusive behaviour. There is now the expectation that organisations implement best practice, root out and prevent abuse in order to ensure that their staff can operate in a safe workspace.

What needs to change? The tip of the iceberg are the tangible changes, including policies, processes and organisational structure. A more important set of aspects is hidden below the water and concerns cultural change: words and deeds of leaders, shared purpose and values, clarity on behaviours expected, rituals that happen, stories that are told and day-to-day practice, and finally the existence or not of a speak-up culture. Although cultural change takes time, needs reinforcing and requires some tough decisions, an organisation that only makes the tangible changes, and neglects the necessary cultural change will not make any progress. If senior leaders are allowed to continue bullying, the rest will not improve.

A survey on this sensitive topic should be placed within this context. Change needs rooting and staff needs the chance to talk about their experience. A survey is an anonymous, confidential way of creating this chance, without putting too much pressure. It also provides the opportunity to gather evidence to support change, and it can be used as a diagnostic tool to track change over time and to establish priorities.

When designing a respectful workplace survey, it is important to first define the scope: what aspects will be included? e.g. discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, physical assault, sexual assault. Providing some brief and easily understandable definitions will be helpful.

Research questions should focus on how much and how often the different types of abuse are experienced or witnessed. How does this play out for the different demographic groups? Demographic questions can be more or less detailed, depending on the sensitivities within the organisation. How do the results compare to other organisations? It is important to look at how often abuse is reported and what the barriers are for staff to report. Are policies understood and processes trusted? Experience shows that there is often a high awareness of policies but a lower trust in processes. How can reporting be encouraged? Open questions are useful to get ideas for creating an abuse-free work environment.

Confidence is key in such a survey, it should feel as a safe space. An external agency can help creating this safe feeling, since the organisation will only see the grouped results. Being clear about the minimum group size on which will be reported, will increase the trust in the survey. Support and clear messages of the leadership is key. Setting the right expectations from the outset and clarity about the confidentiality, the purpose of the survey and how results will be dealt with will influence the trust. If the organisation has a well developed approach for listening to staff, this will be easier. Otherwise, it might be necessary to create a speak-up culture first.

Usually the fieldwork takes 4 weeks and response rates are about half compared to engagement surveys.

On the question as to how organisations deal with feedback and whether transparency doesn’t create a risk for damaging their reputation, Roger replied that a balance needs to be struck. Organisations need to be reasonably transparent with staff in order for these surveys to be effective. The report can be kept on a fairly high level without disclosing too detailed information. Since more and more organisations are implementing these surveys, and even if the results are not perfect, it will still give a good impression that the organisation is on the right path. It is only when you shine a light on these sensitive matters that you can move forward.

Creating the feeling of safety and protection for those who report is important. In case of high profile perpetrators appropriate process is needed. Failing to deal with these cases will undermine all efforts and it is important that allegations are taken seriously.

Finally, it is important to clarify that taking the survey is not the same as reporting a case, because the organisation will have no information on individual names. Taking the survey will make people think about their experiences, but it is important that staff is then encouraged to report and given the information on how to do that.

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