From the halls of the U.S. Congress, to the glitz of Hollywood, to powerful media outlets, institutions of all types have recently found themselves embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. It has sparked a robust national conversation about predatory behavior, power imbalance, and ways to create systemic change. And as a key stakeholder group responsible for aspects of employee relations and company culture, human resources departments are being turned to for answers and a way forward.

Clearly, this issue is on people’s minds across the nation. And since sexual harassment is legally considered to be a form of discrimination based on sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are legal protocols for dealing with specific incidents and communicating policies to employees. Organizations of all sizes and industries are likely rushing to review those policies and painstakingly evaluate employee communications to ensure compliance.

But beyond meeting specific legal requirements, are there also informal ways that an organization can determine whether they have a problem with sexual harassment in the workplace? What steps can companies take to better understand how their environment is perceived by all employees? In other words, how can you assess and create trust in your company’s HR department?

What Creates Low Trust?

These recent events have revived an age-old debate about the function of HR: does its obligation to protect the company conflict with or outweigh its role as a resource for individual employees? Different organizations choose to resolve this issue in a variety of ways, even leading some companies to explore outside assistance for parts of the HR function in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. But there remains a debate about who the group is really there to serve, and that perception can create trust issues for employees.

That’s because the behavior of any individual is only one part of the problem; an organization’s willingness to do anything about such behavior can be just as important. If employees have the perception that nothing will happen when they report an incident or that a situation won’t be handled correctly – in short, if they don’t trust the organization – then they are less likely to speak up in the first place.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces anti-harassment laws in the workplace, says that only about 30% of employees who experience sexual harassment in the workplace end up reporting it to a superior. In a recent analysis, the agency notes that a number of factors cause employees to remain silent, including fear of “disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.” The numbers show that low levels of trust are still common, and organizations shouldn’t assume that they don’t have a problem simply because people aren’t reporting it.

Assessing Your Level of Trust.

So how can you determine whether your employees trust the current HR systems? An employee “pulse-check” survey is a good way to quickly and anonymously gauge your employees’ views about your organization’s track record. Do they feel comfortable going to HR with issues? Do they believe anything will be done about allegations and that reported incidents will be handled correctly? These survey questions can be part of an annual employee engagement initiative, or a separate survey with a few questions to determine how much trust employees have in the current system.

If you’re a larger organization, you might also consider giving employees the option to disclose their gender on the survey. This could help you determine whether your company’s policies are interpreted in the same way by both men and women, or if there’s a disparity between the groups (possibly indicating a problem).

Although conducting a survey sends a message to employees that you are interested in their opinions and take the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace seriously, it’s only a first step in evaluating your policies, training and culture. Just asking the questions isn’t enough, especially if it turns out that trust in your HR department is low. Your organization must be prepared to act on the findings, as well.

What are some things your company can do to build trust in its HR department? Has your organization opted for a third-party solution to dealing with specific employee issues? Join the discussion at

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