54 years ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story titled: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.
The story describes in salacious detail the murder of Kitty Genovese, 28, as her neighbors listened but did not intervene. Encapsulating the profoundly disturbing situation, one man told the police “I didn’t want to get involved.”
I learned about Ms. Genovese as an undergrad, in an introduction to psychology class. While journalists have since proven the Times story flawed, the story took on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience, and resulting in an important body of research on the bystander effect, which says that the more people who witness a crisis, the less likely any one will intervene.
I can’t remember much from my undergraduate studies, but the story of Ms. Genovese is different. Her story remains vivid in my memory and tugs at my consciousness when I see everyday situations that might require intervention. Is that homeless person sleeping, or in distress? Does that dog locked in the car have enough air? Where is that child’s dad? Mostly, this means I wait until I’m assured no action by me is needed (the homeless person breathes; the dog seems ok; the kid finds his dad) and go about my day.
But, as the tsunami of stories emerge about harassment, the question I find myself asking is where were the people in charge? More troubling, I am struck by my own inability to answer with complete confidence that I would have done something different.
In my role as general counsel of the Moore Foundation, one of the responsibilities I hold with the highest priority and value is investigating concerns of misconduct. I’m keenly aware that research shows that most systems for preventing, investigating and addressing sexual harassment are broken. Ninety-eight percent of companies have sexual harassment policies, but a 2015 survey found 71 percent of women do not report sexual harassment, and even fewer bystanders report harassment they have witnessed.
We are in the process of a cultural reckoning. When things fall apart, we have a chance to rebuild in a way that’s better for future generations. This got me to thinking:
- For employees, how do we speak up in the workplace?
- For managers, how do we ensure concerns are investigated and appropriate action is taken?
Here are some tangible things we can do
- Know your organization’s policy and your obligations under it. Every organization should have a written policy describing what employees must report and how reports will be investigated, elevated and addressed. The policy should also protect employees from retaliation and explain how the board will be kept informed. One of the first things you can do if you have a concern about workplace misconduct is check your organization’s policy to understand your obligations and options for reporting.
- Don’t carry the burden yourself. Typically, it will be the responsibility of designated individuals to receive and promptly investigate reported concerns. If you have a feeling something isn’t right, trust it, but don’t feel like it’s your responsibility to solve the potential problem. It’s only your job to bring forward concerns. By doing your job, others can do theirs.
- Report in a way that’s comfortable to you, but don’t not report. Ideally, an employer will provide several ways to report, including through an anonymous hotline. It’s fine to take a few days to think about to whom and how you want to report so that it’s most comfortable to you, but don’t not report. Failing to take action abdicates each of our responsibility to help make the workplace safe.
- Test assumptions. Research shows most employees are reticent to talk about problems and feel it’s not “safe to speak up” or challenge traditional ways of doing things. Untested assumptions often lead to silence. This applies not only to reporting concerns, but also raising constructive ideas for change. By raising a concern, you can have a significant impact on those around you and improve your work environment in the short and long terms.
- Refer the report to human resources or legal - don’t evaluate. As managers, it is not your job to evaluate a concern or complaint. Rather, send it on to the experts in the human resources or legal departments. Too often well-meaning managers miss, or dismiss, a serious matter.
- Investigate the iceberg. If it is your responsibility to investigate concerns, you need to conduct an inquiry sufficient to determine whether the report represents the tip of an iceberg. This means understanding the reported concern, as well as whether there have been similar concerns that have not yet been brought forward. If the report concerns a senior leader or board member, you’ll likely want to engage a third party to conduct the investigation.
- Embrace constructive debate. Foster opportunities where people can speak freely in the workplace. In a great workplace, colleagues are encouraged to speak up about ideas, innovations and improvements. A workplace culture that is open and exploring benefits the organization in a myriad of ways, beyond helping to prevent harassment.
Learning from Sophia Farrar
While Kitty Genovese became a household name, few people have heard of Sophia Farrar. Ms. Farrar was Ms. Genovese’s 79-year old, 4’11” neighbor. Journalists have since determined Sophia rushed out into the night to Kitty’s aid. While she was unable to save Kitty, I like to think of Sophia because she gives me hope in humanity and inspiration to speak up.
Sasha Abrams is general counsel, secretary to the board and chief compliance officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The foundation's Open Door Policy is posted on moore.org.