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The pros and cons of anonymous reporting

Recent insights into the alleged behaviour of Ted Baker CEO Ray Kelvin highlights when anonymous reporting works, but the sacking of Matildas coach Alen Stajcic uncovers a grey area.

Late last year Ray Kelvin, the CEO of popular fashion company Ted Baker, announced he’d be taking a “leave of absence”. The leave is thought to be connected to allegations of sexual harassment made against him that surfaced during an external online pulse check of company’s culture, conducted by campaigning website Organise.

According to reports from the Financial Times, when Organise was conducting a generalised survey into misconduct at work (surveying their database of 47,000 members from many different organisations) they noticed two similar reports from Ted Baker employees. 

Ted Baker employees then started asking for employees to share their own stories on a private messaging system, which uncovered more stories of harassment.

When Organise’s founder and CEO Nat Whalley caught wind of the stories, she designed a petition to help the employees put an end to this behaviour.

One hundred reports of misconduct were presented to the board, with experiences such as “forced hugs” and “ear kissing” from Kelvin identified as common amongst staff. The board says it won’t comment on the nature of other allegations while the formal investigation is underway.

You can’t help but wonder if these 100 reports would have surfaced if it weren’t for Organise’s intervention. It suggests that reporting avenues and protection policies in place at Ted Baker weren’t up to scratch.

The benefits of online reporting

More than 20,000 employees have chosen to anonymously report misconduct, or provide tips-offs, to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) since 2016, with the hospitality industry accounting for 36 per cent of tip-offs. So, clearly there’s an appetite for these reporting tools – regardless of whether they’re internally or externally based.

When paired with traditional reporting policies, these tools can have immense benefits for employees. As Usman Mohammed, Organise’s lead campaigner, says, “You’ve then got this ready-made bank of evidence that you can take to your trade union representative or lawyer.”

From an organisational perspective, it’s obviously preferable that this process is done internally. That way the timing, circumstances and outcomes can be appropriately managed by the HR team and avoid being blown out of proportion in the public sphere. A lack of internal reporting options leaves employees with little choice but to reach out externally to have their grievances heard. This might be an external agency like Organise, or worse, the media.

Plus, there’s evidence that employee reporting benefits organisations. As HRM previously reported, new research revealed that 55 per cent of misconduct reports resulted in positive action for the organisation. Adding anonymous online resources to reporting practices would increase the amount of reports coming across HR’s desk.

But there’s a catch

The ability to share stories far and wide online empowers employees to band together, which can then spur on reporting platforms like Organise to put some data behind the open secrets present in the workplace. But what if they get it wrong?

The recent dismissal of Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, just five months before the World Cup, is an interesting case. While it’s not yet clear why Stajcic was fired, it’s speculated to align with reports of harsh treatment of players from a routine anonymous wellbeing audit of Australian national teams.

It’s thought that some of the harsh behaviour included ignoring player’s medical advice to lessen training sessions, body shaming, bullying and intimidation. Younger players are thought to have been the target of this behaviour.

Many current players have jumped to Stajcic’s defence. Stiker Sam Kerr tweeted: “my trust was in Staj to lead us to the World Cup final & I believe he was the best coach for that. Thankful for everything [he’s] done for me and the team”.

Former assistant coach and current Canberra United W-League coach Heather Garriock, added her support. “I have been coached by, and coached with, Alen Stajcic in the National Team set up and can honestly say I am highly respected as a female player and coach.

“’Staj’ is someone who drove the highest standards from day one. He asked players to give everything of themselves for the nation, because he believed that Australia should aspire to be World Champions. Going towards this year’s World Cup, he had carefully crafted together a squad that was ready to carry out that mission.”

It’s somewhat of a grey area now, with some reports speculating that those who anonymously reported “harsh behaviour” from Stajcic may have just been “incapable of meeting the tougher demands expected in an elite sporting environment” and others believing he facilitated an “abusive culture”.

Cultural problems could be assumed, with the assistant coach Nahuel Arrarte also stepping down, but the contradiction between what was reported online and what’s being said publicly highlights the importance of anonymous reporting systems needing to be paired with formal investigations to determine the facts.

Either way, as an employer Football  Federation Australia has a duty of care to its players. Even if the allegations against Stajcic prove to be over inflated, it’s clear that his approach wasn’t working for everyone.

Does anonymity even work?

Despite the benefits of offering employees anonymous reporting tools, it can be difficult for an organisation to deal with them. Without attached identity, it’s hard to quantify what’s being said.

This issue has caused at least one organisation to put an end to anonymous reporting. Shane Snow, the co-founder of Contently, has said that it was holding his company back.

In an article penned for Fast Company, Snow acknowledges that certain circumstances call for anonymity and confidentiality, but says two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of the feedback he and his team were receiving, such as “does he even know what he’s doing?”, wasn’t very helpful; it did little more than hurt people’s feelings.

As the feedback was submitted anonymously, he wasn’t able to follow up with the employee for clarification. This problem also goes in the opposite direction. One employee said “I don’t feel like I fit in with my team”. What can they do with that information? He also suggests that anonymity reinforces the idea that it’s always risky to speak up, when sometimes it isn’t.

While anonymously providing leadership feedback and reporting misconduct are very different things, issues can arise for both. What if an employee isn’t particularly articulate in accusing an executive of misconduct; perhaps they don’t represent the facts as they occurred, either by accident or purposefully. How can HR know if they’re seeing the full picture, and who do they follow up with to begin gathering evidence?

Does your organisation have anonymous online reporting systems in place? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Get the skills to assess complaints, gather corroborative information and make critical decisions that affect employees, with the AHRI short course ‘Investigating workplace misconduct’.

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My previous employer conducted supposedly anonymous appraisals of the management by team members. Unfortunately they required each appraisal to be accompanied by a code number allocated by management. We were also advised not to criticise management as it would reflect back on us not working as a team.

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