Developing a Reporting Structure
When members of your organization suspect problematic behavior is occurring, a clearly defined and effective reporting structure helps them to understand their options for sharing those concerns by outlining how they can be brought to the organization’s attention. Like each aspect of the report handling system, the reporting structure should be accessible, fair, and compassionate.
The guiding philosophy to be articulated in your Policy is that anyone, whether a target of the prohibited conduct, a witness, or simply someone who is aware of the conduct, can file a report at any time. This is true whether they are officially associated with your organization or have interacted with your organization. Because there is little opportunity for organizations that are unaware of problematic behavior to correct it, reports should be welcomed as opportunities to uphold the values of safety, respect, and equity.
Those with leadership, supervisory, or fiduciary responsibilities are required to immediately report if they hear about, observe, or suspect prohibited conduct, even if they believe they, or others, have already taken sufficient action to stop it. All employees, including those in non-leadership positions, should feel empowered by your Policy to report violations in order to create a shared sense of responsibility in the organization.
An effective reporting structure outlines available mechanisms to bring concerns to the attention of the organization. These include information about how concerns are raised and to whom they should be directed.
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The more modalities available for people to report their concerns, the more likely you are to hear concerns promptly. Most importantly, every person should have a path to seek help that does not go through the person they believe to be bullying, harassing, or retaliating against them. (These are called “bypass options” and are discussed further below). Literacy differences, accessibility issues, the urgency of the matter, and access to technology are also factors in ensuring minimal obstacles to raising concerns. Sharing concerns can sometimes raise conflicted feelings and call up previous trauma. Having options gives people greater autonomy to select the mechanisms that feel safest and most comfortable.
Minimally, your Policy should clarify that reports can be made in person, by phone or video call, through email, or by completing a reporting form. A reporting form can be helpful for an employee who doesn’t know how to begin. Some jurisdictions require that employers provide a form to assist individuals in reporting. Even when a form is provided, though, completion of the form (or any other written report) cannot be a precondition of reporting. If a form is available, your Policy should explain how to access and submit the form. Reporting forms should be available in languages spoken in your community and written in clear, direct language. Reporting structures should also account for visual, hearing, and other accessibility needs.
Designating Multiple People to Receive Reports
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Listing at least three people to whom one can raise a concern ensures that the complainant can contact an individual who is neither connected to the incident or in their direct supervisory chain. Identifying multiple individuals who can receive a report also allows the complainant to discuss concerns with someone whom they feel most comfortable approaching. If your organization has multiple locations, it is helpful to add designated responders at each location.
When possible, one of the options for reporting should be someone in a human resources capacity or, if that is not possible, a senior executive. Another recipient of reports could be a member of the Board of Trustees. This provides a reporting mechanism outside the chain of command of the senior executive. Specific supervisors and managers are frequently on the list as well.
Your reporting options may include other staff members not mentioned here. All individuals designated to receive reports must be provided with thorough training on the protocols of receiving and responding to a report. If your organization is large, creating an infographic of reporting options may clarify the reporting process.
When it comes to concerns involving youth and vulnerable adults, all individuals must adhere to your organization’s mandated reporting Policy. 1
Whether or not they are designated within your Policy, all supervisors who learn that behavior violating your organization’s Policy might be occurring must submit a report. For this reason, all supervisors should also be trained on handling such concerns, and it should be understood throughout the organization that concerns regarding prohibited conduct that are shared with people in supervisory positions will be reported.
When an individual designated to receive a report – or any supervisor – has been notified of conduct that may violate your Policy, your organization is required to respond promptly. Therefore, there is no such thing as an “informal report” or “informally looking into a situation.” Those with concerns do have places they can privately process concerns, ask questions, or vent outside of your organization. Resources such as employee assistance programs offer confidentiality. Hotlines, local nonprofits, and mental health care providers can also, with some restrictions, offer a place for people to discuss their concerns without initiating an investigation.
In some cases, in addition to using your response system, reporting to other entities might be an appropriate option. In the case of assault or battery, for instance, the behavior may be criminal, prompting a report to law enforcement. In some cases, the person whose conduct is at issue may hold a license or be bound by professional ethics codes, and the licensing or accrediting agencies may conduct their own investigations. Finally, if an employee believes that their report has not been handled appropriately, they may file a charge with local, state, or federal enforcement agencies. For purposes of your Policy, it is appropriate to note that if other entities are investigating violations of your Policy, your organization will cooperate to the extent possible. In some states, employers are required to provide a fact sheet to employees with information about external resources as well as internal reporting options. Such a resource can be very valuable even when it is not required.
1 For more on safeguarding youth from abuse in Jewish organizations see Sacred Spaces’ Aleinu campaign.
There Must be No Preconditions to Reporting
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Because prohibited behavior often occurs in situations where power, status, or authority are or are perceived to be unequal, the person experiencing the unwelcome behavior may not be able or willing to object or confront the individual directly. Your Policy cannot require that someone has objected to the behavior or ask that it be stopped as a condition of receiving a report. Filing a report may often be the first step in addressing the situation.
The person bringing forward the report does not have to determine that the behavior or incident violates the organization’s Policy. The individual must simply believe that something happened or is happening that might violate your organization’s policies around safety, respect, and equity.
Individuals may bring forward concerns that took place off-premises, such as at work-related gatherings, client locations, or organization-sponsored events. (Refer to the Scope of Policy considerations in Foundational Elements for more information on this topic).
There should be no time limits on filing a report. When receiving reports about past conduct, your organization will need to determine an appropriate response based on current risk, ethical obligations, and practical circumstances. Time limitations do apply to external agencies – such as law enforcement and enforcement agencies — such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — but those organizations will conduct jurisdiction and statute of limitations analyses.
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Anonymous reports happen when the person making the report does not include any identifying information about themselves. Organizations should not make assumptions about someone’s reasons for wanting to remain anonymous. Your organization should determine if you want a formal mechanism for receiving anonymous reports, such as a designated email address or phone line. If your organization is subject to federal or state regulations, you may already have a complaint hotline available, which will allow for anonymity. See an example here. A number of companies produce apps enabling employees to anonymously report misconduct. You can read more about those here.
Your organization must respond to anonymous reports as you would any report. Your Policy should state that anonymous reports will be responded to when possible, based on the information provided. Such a statement clarifies that, while all reports are taken seriously, if an anonymous report is too general or lacking in specifics, your organization might not be capable of fully investigating it. Organizations are responsible for looking into every report and determining, to the best of their ability, if prohibited conduct is occurring and, if so, to stop it.
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Third-party reports are those brought forward by an individual who is not directly involved. For example, a supervisor might report an overheard conversation between two individuals who witnessed an incident of discrimination, a staff person may observe harassing behavior between individuals, or a consultant may observe discriminatory remarks towards an individual.
Your Policy may state that when a third party reports an incident, the same procedures will apply as if the complainant had made the report.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how individuals can report concerns, you should draft your organization’s reporting Policy. We have provided sample language below that you can adapt or use as a point of reference.
The following supporting documents can be tailored to your organization’s unique needs.
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