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See Something, Say Something: Stop Sexual Exploitation & Abuse

June 11, 2018

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Colleen Striegel


Colleen Striegel will be presenting a session on this topic at Humentum’s Annual Conference in Washington, DC, taking place June 25-27. 

It always surprises me when I conduct investigations into allegations of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse in the humanitarian/global development space, just how many people actually knew that something was not right. Often, employees have actually witnessed sexual misconduct or strongly suspected that it was going on, but never reported anything. It is particularly surprising because most organizations’ policies clearly state that not reporting sexual misconduct is cause for disciplinary action—including termination.  

When I inquire why staff fail to report, here are some of the most common responses:

  • Fear of retribution
  • Belief that nothing will be done about it anyway
  • Concern about confidentiality if concern is reported
  • Lack of trust in the reporting process
  • Concern about not having concrete evidence—only a suspicion
  • Fear of being perceived as a troublemaker
  • Not wanting to be perceived as a gossip

Creating a speak up culture is one of the most important things leaders can do to encourage people to report sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.  In order to do this, the above fears need to be openly addressed. Staff must understand the importance of reporting their concerns, even if it is only a suspicion.  The importance of reporting needs to be talked about and reinforced frequently.

There are some practical steps organizations can take to create a speak up culture that reassures employees that they can safely report sexual misconduct concerns and that they will be taken seriously:

Ensure that all staff receive training. Staff need to be trained not only to understand what constitutes sexual misconduct, but they need to understand their obligation to report it if they see it, even if it is only a suspicion.

Reinforce the importance of having a safe reporting environment. This can be done by regularly including this topic as an agenda item at management and staff meetings. Make sure that staff understand the reporting mechanisms

Have various reporting options available to staff. Multiple reporting options will allow employees to choose the one that makes them feel the most comfortable or safe when reporting. The reporting mechanisms can include talking confidentially with a supervisor, designated focal points, or an HR representative for example. Include a confidential hotline for anonymous reporting. Always include reporting options that have translation services, and don’t require staff to put their concerns in writing.

Take all claims seriously.  Even if you personally feel that the allegation is not likely to be true or if you believe the reporter doesn’t have enough information, you must bring the claim forward for review.  Also reassure reporters that your policy prohibits retaliation and acknowledge their courage in coming forward.

Conduct timely investigations—always. Investigate all claims immediately. Use trained investigators who are experienced in handling sexual misconduct cases.

Report results when possible. When the investigation is concluded, let the reporter know the outcome, without sharing confidential details. At a minimum, the reporter needs to know that you took action, even if you cannot share the details. For highly visible cases, acknowledge the issues with all employees and the actions that were taken to rectify the matter.

In the long run, promoting a speak up culture not only helps to protect vulnerable people, but fosters a workplace where staff can freely express their concerns and know that they will be heard and recognized.  

Colleen Striegel is Director of HumanitarianHR. HumanitarianHR works to eradicate the sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking of displaced people and helps organizations in developing the highest standards to safeguard dignity and restore hope for those silenced in global development and aid settings.