Can online reporting stop workplace microaggressions?

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Law firm Hogan Lovells has launched a new way to improve relations in the workplace. If staff experience unacceptable behaviour like someone taking credit for their work, or microaggressions such as bias related to age, gender or race, they can now log it online, discreetly flagging the problem to management.

The firm introduced the tool after noticing employee “reluctance to call out seemingly ‘minor incidents’, which may nonetheless contribute to someone feeling excluded or marginalised”, Penny Angell, UK managing partner, says.

Critics accused the firm of policing staff and stoking a culture of fear.

Rosie Turner, co-founder of InChorus, the platform used by Hogan Lovells and other employers from a range of sectors, denies it is “the weaponisation of the woke”. She describes the tool as a “smoke alarm” that exposes problems before they become severe.

“If you look back at Uber, BrewDog, Ted Baker,” she says, “what you always see is that those big behaviours don’t happen in a vacuum.” All three companies were publicly accused by workers of perpetuating toxic cultures.

Turner makes the case for a mechanism allowing employees to flag problems that is more proactive than annual engagement surveys and less drastic than formally reporting grievances. “There’s little between these two extremes. It’s not about policing behaviours, it’s about detecting friction points.”

Reporting on such platforms is anonymous, and InChorus and similar providers do not allow staff to blame or identify individuals, which Turner says would make the mechanisms “vulnerable to misuse”. The microaggressions or bad behaviour staff might report include assuming an older colleague is technologically challenged, or bullying or belittling behaviour.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, employers stepped up diversity initiatives to advance staff from under-represented backgrounds. But subsequently, after the US Supreme Court ruled last June against race-conscious university admissions, corporate programmes have come under attack, including by prominent figures such as Elon Musk and hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman.

In the UK, stronger worker protections due to come into force in October will place a duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent misconduct. Law firm Travers Smith, for example, has updated its policy on staff reporting concerns about conduct, alongside a training programme for managers.

Turner says ideally organisations would want people to speak up in-person when they experience problems. But “that overlooks power dynamics. You can’t demand psychological safety.” Rather than seeing such tools as punitive, employers should use them to collect data and understand friction between co-workers. It might help identify training, or encourage those with differences of opinion, say between generations, to understand each other’s perspectives. “This stuff can feel very binary,” says Turner. “Actually it’s often not that. There’s a messy bit in the middle.”

Tech platforms that collect complaints can improve understanding, says David D’Souza, director of profession at the CIPD, the human resources body. However, they risk creating a “culture of reporting rather than direct dialogue. Organisations need to clearly define what should be reported through these channels, while promoting direct and timely conversations between colleagues.”

Ethan Burris, professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, says these reporting channels can also “send signals that it is not safe to speak up face to face”. 

If leadership is funnelling people to use anonymous avenues to tell the truth, then it may suggest that it is risky to speak out. “While anonymous hotlines are important for HR to capture instances of discrimination, harassment and unethical behaviour, if that is the primary or only mechanism to hear from employees, it is a strong signal that employees should be cautious telling the truth about any issue.”

Another problem can be that such systems rob leadership of the ability of to follow up. “Anonymity, while important for protecting the identity of the employee, greatly hinders leaders’ ability to . . . find out what is really going on,” says Burris. It would be too extreme, he says, to claim that anonymous systems are harmful for employees. “They absolutely have their place . . . but, they need to be complemented with other avenues for employees to relay their feedback and ideas, [leaders need to signal] that employee input is valued and impactful for changing company policy and routines.”

The most important thing for ensuring that microaggression reporting is more than a fig leaf? Employers need to take concrete actions in response to what they hear, says Burris. “Absent these, employees rightfully feel that their voice goes into the ether, or worse, that there will be severe consequences for telling the truth.”

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